With so much consumer behaviour, not to mention human behaviour, happening at an unconscious level, it’s all too easy for something that you say or do to not register in your own consciously accessible memory as significant.

One friend of mine was asked in a survey what brands of lager he purchased.  He wasn’t a big drinker, but would probably make a lager purchase (always of the same brand) every month or two. 

But faced with an interviewer’s question, and without the unconsciously filtered visual prompts of the packaging he couldn’t recall the brand he’d bought all these years (a little-known brand called Budweiser!).  How do I know the visual prompts were unconsciously filtered? Because faced with a bottle, even with a large proportion concealed he would recognise it and name it every time. 

But he couldn’t describe the bottle’s design, because if he could summon up a similar small proportion of the pack detail consciously, he would have been able to recall the name too.

Had the interview been conducted on a different day, or in a different place, he might have seen a visual cue that reminded him. 

It’s all a bit haphazard, don’t you think?

Recently I read an internet survey on mobile phone (cell phone) usage.  One of the early questions asked “When you share your thoughts about computers and IT topics how do you do it?”

A prompted list offered nine choices, and an “other” and “I don’t share thoughts…” options.

Just how much reliving off the recent past the average respondent is supposed to invoke at this point isn’t clear.

A casual comment on an iPhone application mentioned in a car?  A pointer on the bottom of an email?  Telling someone that their blog formatting is off? 

Frankly, I can’t be bothered to give much thought to a question like this.  And I happen to think that the vast majority of other respondents, blasting through the survey so that they get entered for the sweep-stake prize or to receive some other recompense, won’t be that bothered either.

So just how much should faith should a company have in an answer to a question like this from consumer research?

Not much, is my professional opinion.

As you go about your consumer life it doesn’t matter at all that your thoughtless; in fact, it helps make you efficient at what you do.  Imagine buying beer for the first time and trying to make a “good” decision by reading all the packs, analysing the ingredients, and so on.  It would take forever, and you’d be none the wiser in any case!

But when it comes to trying to understand your own consumers it really is important to understand that consumers are, for the most part, consciously thoughtless.  They may well answer your questions, but you shouldn’t confuse the fact that you get an answer with the notion that the answer has any real relevance to them or people your survey is assuming that they’re representative of.

Philip Graves


  1. John Ho


    I agree taht most of the market surveys are a waste of money as seldom those who design the survey know the right way to do them. they should consult the Consumer Behavior Expert – you, first!

    John Ho
    Numerology Expert Helps Understanding Personality for Better Influence & Persuasion (WordPress Blog)
    Numerology Expert Daily Numeroscope (Vox Blog)
    Numerology Expert Helps Understanding Personality for Better Influence & Persuasion (Money Page)

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