Closing the Thinking vs. Feeling Gap with Electrodes, not Surveys


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What we say is not what we feel.

That’s not because we lie, although we do surprisingly often. According to a study, 60% of people tend to fib at least once within ten minutes of meeting someone new.[1] But the truth gap between our words and feelings isn’t always deliberate. We’re just naturally bad at articulating what makes us happy.

An increasing number of marketers are abandoning questionnaires and replacing them with more scientific techniques to probe what’s really on their customers’ minds. And when it comes to measuring a better customer experience, CX professionals should do the same.

Right brain, wrong brain

We’re always of two minds. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman describes it, we have a reflexive, intuitive half and a reflective, logical half.[2] He calls the automatic part System 1. It’s incredibly fast and powerful, but it relies on simple rules. We’re more familiar with System 2, the home of our internal dialogue. It’s far more sophisticated, learns faster, and is capable of complexity and nuance. But there’s a tradeoff. System 2 is much slower than System 1 and impacts decisions less.

We believe we always make conscious, rational decisions, but our choices actually happen subconsciously and emotionally. Incredibly, the evidence shows that System 1 sometimes decides up to ten seconds before System 2 does.[3] That means our intuitive, emotional selves beat our logical, rational selves to the punch, strongly biasing our decisions. Unless our easily distracted and often lazy System 2 intervenes, System 1’s determinations will stand. As a result, we’re far more likely to rely on our emotions than logic.

While they share the same headspace, System 1 is often a mystery to System 2. For example, studies have shown that when people choose impulsively rather than rationally, they tend to be happier. In an experiment selecting artwork, researchers asked half of their test subjects to make a thorough evaluation of prints before they chose a favorite one to bring home.[4] They purposely distracted the other test subjects and then rushed them to choose a picture based on “gut feel.” The results? People acting on reflex were more satisfied with their choices. So while our System 2 may be more advanced, it’s not a good judge of emotions. That’s where System 1 rules.

That’s what I said, but it’s not what I meant

For decades, marketers have been stymied by attitudinal surveys that didn’t accurately predict behaviors. Net Promoter Score® is a case in point. While it asks about the likelihood a customer will recommend a friend, it doesn’t correlate with them actually doing so. In practice, only a very small fraction of “Promoter” customers actually promote. What people say and what they do are two different things.

Marketers in increasing numbers have discovered that the truth behind behavior resides in another part of the customer’s brain. They’ve learned surveys activate System 2, but the real authority is System 1 where feelings strongly influence decisions and actions. They’re replacing the questionnaire’s clipboards, pencils and paper with new technologies to probe System 1 directly, unfiltered by System 2.

Measuring subtler signals

Neuromarketing is the application of neuroscience in the field of marketing. Scientists use techniques such as skin conductance, electroencephalographic (EEG), functional magnetic imaging (fMRI), body language, and eye tracking to measure System 1, which reveals itself through physical responses. By correlating somatic states with brain activity known for attention and emotion, neuroscientists can determine with great accuracy what a customer really thinks, feels, and decides.

For example, Neurons, Inc., a Copenhagen-based firm, counts Lowe’s, the home improvement store, as one of its clients. They wire up consumers with mobile sensors and then let them roam Lowe’s test retail facility. Researchers record data as consumers to walk through the set. By analyzing certain patterns, they can identify which displays attract attention, hold interest, create preferences and elicit purchasing. Most of the emotional reactions that lead to buying behaviors occur below conscious awareness, so observing System 1 instead of querying System 2 gives a fuller and more accurate picture of the true shopping experience.

These days, technology companies are rapidly introducing more unobtrusive System 1 sensing tools. For example, software provider Clicktale measures mouse movements and digital “body language” to determine a customer’s online intentions. IBM Watson uses natural language processing to detect customer sentiment in emails, text, and social media posts. MIT Media Lab analytics start-up Affectiva recognizes facial expressions and discerns emotional states from webcam feeds. And NICE technology can detect customer emotions by analyzing their voice pitch on phone calls.

Revealing CX’s hidden brain

The customer’s journey ends at an important destination. Will they churn? Repurchase? Rave to friends or warn them to stay away? These decisions ultimately come from how customers evaluate their experiences. At specific steps in the journey, customers must solve practical problems with their System 2 capabilities. But System 1 is always on and active, sensing experiences and silently recording emotions. Through learning, the brain automatically accumulates impressions and forms long-term associations that sway our choices. In the end, how we feel trumps what we think, and managing a few critical moments well along the way can make all the difference.

You can’t improve what you can’t measure. Surveys can only do so much because they engage only one part of the brain. If we really want to impact downstream results, we must we must capture both System 1 and System 2 responses upstream during key episodes and analyze them for improvement. We must therefore expand our toolset.

Where is this headed? With the rapid change of today’s automation, someday perhaps we won’t have to ask people for their opinions. A customer’s autonomic clues buried in text messages, voice prints and body language will give them away. But until then, we must do what an increasing number of marketers have already done—explore new ways to measure how people truly feel.

Net Promoter, Net Promoter System, Net Promoter Score, NPS and the NPS-related emoticons are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Fred Reichheld and Satmetrix Systems, Inc.

[1] Feldman, R., Forrest, J., and Happ, B. (2002) Self-presentation and verbal deception: Do self-presenters lie more? Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 24(4), 163-170
[2] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, pp. 188.
[3] Bode, S., He, A.H., Soon, C.S., Trampel, R., Turner, R., et al. (2011) Tracking the unconscious generation of free decisions using uItra-high field fMRI. PLOS ONE 6(6): e21612.
[4] Dijksterhuis, A., and van Olden, Z., (2005). On the benefits of thinking unconsciously: Unconscious thought can increase post-choice satisfaction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42:5 pp. 627-631.

Ed Powers
Ed Powers is principal consultant at Service Excellence Partners, a firm specializing in customer experience and customer success consulting for subscription-based technology companies. He combines the latest advances in neuroscience with analytics and continuous improvement, drawing from over thirty years of sales, marketing and operations experience with start-ups to Fortune 40 companies.


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