Andrew Perkins does research to help figure out what makes people buy what they buy.
In his presentation at FFWD: Advertising and Marketing Week 2014, Perkins, an assistant professor of marketing at the Ivey Business School, spoke about the unconscious mind and how his type of research may one day help marketers better understand consumer behaviour.
His presentation covered a new area of research called embodied cognition – the idea that mental activity is linked to how we perceive the physical world around us. While Perkins admitted it’s still too early to say how consumer behaviours can be changed as a result of embodied cognition, these types of experiments are the first steps to figuring it out and are something marketers are keeping tabs on.
Those that study consumer behaviour today tend to agree that most of the things happening in people’s heads are going on in the background (or subconscious).
Perkins explained that from the time we are young, humans learn the truisms of our physical environment and, as we grow, make more connections between the physical world and the psychological aspect of things. When you’re a child, for example, you learn basic physical concepts simply by being in an environment (i.e. how gravity works, warm versus cold). These early sensorimotor experiences provide what Perkins called “scaffolding” for later, more complex abstractions.
Kids, for example, typically equate warmth with the feeling of being embraced by their mother, and respond psychologically with feelings of safety, social warmth and a lack of fear. Feelings of warmth, Perkins said, are equated with being part of a group while cold is linked to being alone.
As we grow up, we continue to build on these basic original associations with more scaffolding. We add metaphorical layers to our understanding, recognizing concepts like “up equals good” (i.e. the sun is upwards, open skies represent possibilities) while down has more negative connotations (i.e. you fall from grace, you go down the rabbit hole).
We don’t usually realize that this metaphorical thinking is happening, or how it affects our perceptions, but Perkins says it does. Referencing the adage “something smells fishy” to mean something seems untrustworthy or odd, he explained that in one experiment, researchers asked participants in a closed room to judge whether a stranger was trustworthy or not. The smell of fish was added to the room and, lo and behold, the subjects said the person was less likely to be trustworthy.
In another example, study participants were handed a warm cup of coffee, then asked to judge an individual they’d never met. The overall feedback, said Perkins, was that the person had a warm personality, was nice, and participants were more likely to want to get to know them.
“These links are unconscious,” said Perkins. “They just happen.”
With the current retail environment already heavily shaped by curated sounds, smells and visual designs, marketers are watching the research to learn how to better tap into consumer’s thought process when it comes to forming opinions about products.