Disrupting System 1 thinking: Better science for smarter marketing

Since the publication of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow in 2012, there has been an explosion of interest in System 1 versus System 2 thinking (aka Dual Process Theory) and its applications to marketing in particular. But what if we have it wrong? Are we using the latest and best science appropriately?

The author(s)

  • Vinod Venkatraman Customer Experience, USA
  • Rich Timpone Ipsos Marketing, US
  • Manuel Garcia-Garcia Global Science Organization, USA
  • Ornella Godard Global Neuroscience Director, France
  • Martin Schoeller Global Science Organisation, France
  • Colin Strong Global Lead of Behavioural Science, Global Science Organisation, UK
  • Tamara Ansons Behavioural Science, UK
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The conventional wisdom is that most decisions are made by System 1, and only occasionally does System 2 kick in to override System 1. Additionally, System 1 decisions are thought to be very resilient, and the biases impossible to break. These “new” laws of human behaviour have fueled dubious claims about related phenomena, such as 95% of behaviours are driven by non-conscious processes, cognition and emotion are two separate and independent processes, emotion is entirely non-conscious and measuring it is exclusively the domain of neuroscience, and cognition is entirely conscious and easily accessible by asking questions.

While the narrative is easy and compelling – that emotions help overcome our cognitive limitations by facilitating rapid non-conscious responses – it does not represent the complex and adaptive nature of the decision-making process. A fundamental paradigm shift is happening in the scientific literature away from the canonical Dual Process Theory (DPT), and marketing must keep pace lest we miss out on important and valuable insights.

The traditional, “System 1, then sometimes System 2” sequence is not supported by the data—people engage in both automatic and deliberative thinking at the same time, sometimes in conflict. Cognitive processing is not binary, but falls along a continuum, ranging from slow/deliberative to fast/automatic. An independent, regulatory process monitors and guides the cascade of processes, literally disrupting automatic responses and allowing a decision or behaviour to be adapted dynamically, based on the context and availability of resources. All of this is deeply influenced by the context, goals, prior associations and experiences stored in memory, and the bodily sensations that combine with these other factors to produce emotions.

In this work, we have crystallized the latest science into a new model for human experience and decision making. This model disrupts the myths that have grown out of the prior generation of science and addresses some of the most important marketing questions of today: What causes marketing disruption? How can I design, evaluate and optimise products and experiences that disrupt default behaviour? How can I create emotional experiences that will support adaptive decisions and stimulate behaviour change? We discuss the evolution of the proposed model and its scientific basis. Then, we discuss results from our research on how disruption influences adaptive decision making and changes behaviour in marketing and other domains, with empirical examples from advertising research and the changing shopping behaviours around the COVID-19 public health crisis.

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The author(s)

  • Vinod Venkatraman Customer Experience, USA
  • Rich Timpone Ipsos Marketing, US
  • Manuel Garcia-Garcia Global Science Organization, USA
  • Ornella Godard Global Neuroscience Director, France
  • Martin Schoeller Global Science Organisation, France
  • Colin Strong Global Lead of Behavioural Science, Global Science Organisation, UK
  • Tamara Ansons Behavioural Science, UK

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