Making an Impression in 120 Milliseconds


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I recently read this article in Science Daily. In essence it talks about the fact that we sometimes don’t realize why we are feeling some emotion. I wrote a blog recently on How emotions are evoked, which outline the process our body and brain goes through to evoke an emotion. If we understand this we can better build a great Customer Experience. The article took this one stage further, it says:

“Most people agree that emotions can be caused by a specific event and that the person experiencing it is aware of the cause, such as a child’s excitement at the sound of an ice cream truck. But recent research suggests emotions also can be unconsciously evoked and manipulate

Psychologists Kirsten Ruys and Diedrick Stapel of the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research at Tillburg University in The Netherlands have uncovered the first empirical evidence to suggest humans do not need to be aware of the event that caused their mood or feelings in order to be affected by it. The scientists hypothesized that, since humans have evolved to respond quickly and unconsciously to stimuli, they should be able to react to an emotional event without full awareness

The intriguing results, which appear in the April issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, strongly support the psychologists’ theory. Those participants who viewed only the disgust-inducing subliminal images were more likely to use disgust words in the word-completion task, to describe their feelings with the disgust words and to choose to take the ‘scary movie test.’ The same held true for those who viewed only the fear-inducing images they also were more likely to use words related to fear and to take the ‘strange food test.’

The psychologists also found that after quick (120ms) speed exposures to emotional stimuli, a general, negative mood developed accompanied by a specific emotion, such as fear after seeing fearful pictures. After the super-quick (40ms) speed exposure, only a general negative mood was induced without a specific emotion involved. These empirical findings are the first to demonstrate that specific emotions can be evoked without awareness of the cause and that a person’s global mood can develop into a specific emotion.”

Therefore, in a Customer Experience it is important that you understand the signals your company are giving to your Customer, no matter how fleeting they may be. For example Banks put pens on chains, the message is clear, “We don’t trust you”.

This work shows that within 120ms your mind can see signals and affect the mood of a customer. A brief glare from a employee that says “you are an idiot” is enough to spoil a great Customer Experience, a glimpse into the back of a restaurant kitchens through swing doors glimpsing a dirty environment is enough to put you of your food. There are a number of other similar signals on our blog that send signals. But likewise remember this should be seen as an opportunity. What positive signals can you place in your experience? In our Journey mapping process we call Moment Mapping, we take out the negative signals and replace them with positive ones.

Stop and think, what you are doing? How will it be perceived? You maybe unintentionally evoking the wrong emotions.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


  1. Hi Colin

    According to various commentators, the typical American consumer sees more than 3,000 advertising messages every day. But that pales into significance compared to the number of emotional stimuli we receive per day. I couldn’t find a number whilst travelling for work, but I assume it must be in the 100,000s or higher. With all this emotional stimulation going on, it is not so easy to say for sure if and how one particular stimulus will be perceived, versus another.

    Would bank customer actually register the pen on a chain? Would seeing it elicit a negative feeling of distrust? And would that actually register cognitively as a thought, ‘pen on a chain = the bank doesn’t trust me’? It might for some customers, but it might not for others. And it depends upon what else is competing for attention at the time, such as a long queue when you are in a hurry, noisy children waiting with their mother in the bank, or even the smell of fresh coffee wafting in from the McCafe next door,.

    The point is that whilst it is logical to make assumptions about objects in the customer experience having certain meanings, without experimentation the assumptions are just unproven hypotheses. There is always a huge danger that the hypotheses are simply wrong. A pen on a chain might also elicit, ‘great, there’s always a pen handy at this bank’ feelings and thoughts in some customers.

    We cannot sanitise a customer experience in the way you imply. Nor should we try. There are just too many stimuli. And we don’t know which of them will be picked-up and what they will elicit in different customers. It is time to move beyond the pop-neuroscience that has invaded customer experience design. We need to become much more experimental in our approach to experience design and to involve customers in co-designing experiences through trial and error. The neurosciences have provided us with many insights which we can test in ths way, but the acid test is finding out what actually works.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

  2. Graham,

    Thanks for the comments you raise some interesting points and nothing like debates so thanks for posting. I would not agree with your main points. Our work on the Emotional Signature, ( from our last book the DNA of Customer Experience ( statistically proves that subconscious experience can drive and destroy value. Even down to pen’s in bank has an effect. This may be minor, but when added together with all the other negative subconscious signals they add up to feeling it is a bad experience. So we can show it is much more than hypotheses.

    Colin Shaw
    International Author. Lastest book “The DNA of Customer Experience”
    Follow me on Twitter:

  3. Hi Colin

    I agree with you 100% that subconscious stimuli greatly influence our perception of the experience. This has been established without a shadow of a doubt over the past 10 years by a large body of peer-reviewed academic research. And it logically follows that subconscious stimuli that trigger negative emotions should result in perceptions of a negative experience, (even when we can’t quite work out why).

    What is more challenging is identifying the subconscious stimuli, their strengths and direction, and how they individually and collectively influence our perception of the experience. By definition they are processed subconsciusly so we obviously have great difficulty finding out their influence through traditional market research, as we are not aware of them.

    The enormous range of stimuli (subconscious and conscious), their interactions and how that influences our perceptions of the experience is a challenge that has plagued experience designers for some time. I will check out the Emotional Signature tool in your book when I get back from my travels. It will be interesting to see whether it offers a realistic alternative to the multiple method triangulation approach used by design thinkers.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

  4. –not Colin’s work about the Emotional Signature, but the Coen Brothers movie!

    In the movie Burn After Reading the audience watches a series of crimes and deceit unfold, along with understanding the motivations of the perpetrators. But when the investigators (accurately)piece together the details ex post facto, the findings appear ludicrously illogical–but the investigators are correct. The situation is funny because when the investigators consider how preposterous their conclusions seem, they shrug off their insight!

    What comes to mind about the role of subliminal stimuli and consumer behavior is that the more rigor that’s applied to understanding the customer experience, the more illogical resulting outcomes might appear (As executives at companies that target the 18-24 demographic can attest, and as Graham points out about how a tethered ball point pen might be perceived by two different customers at a bank).

    I’m not advocating that theories and decision models be discarded, or that consumer behavior research is a waste of time, but I recognize that there are challenges when structured methodologies are applied to behaviors that are often inconsistent and counter-intuitive. As Colin points out, it’s important never to stop at the boundary of a widely-held theory, but to continually test for validity.

  5. Andy

    You raise an interesting point: That most companies are patronised by any number of discrete segments of customers with homogenous but different behaviour. This has big implications for CEX design.

    Much of the CEX work I have seen does not adequately take into account that there may be dozens, if not hundreds of segments who are often looking for different things from the customer experience. They generally don’t want everything about it to be different, but they do want some things to be different. And their needs change as they gather their own experience of the CEX too. Any approach that treats all customers as though they are the same – for instance the branded CEX approches beloved of marketing agencies who have branched out into CEX – are doomed to mediocrity.

    Much more thought should be gicen to identifying the core CEX that everyone wants and then identifying the subtler differences that differentiates what one segments wants versus another. This requires a detailed understanding of customer needs (through the jobs they are trying to do) and a design approach that creates an experience platform which different customers can use to co-create their own experiences in exactly the way they want them. This ‘golden triangle’ of understanding customer jobs-to-be-done, service dominant logic to understand how vaue is co-created with customers during touchpoints and design thinking to bring them all together in a superior CEX is the way forward in CEX design.

    So next time you talk to a CEX consultancy, listen carefully to the language they use. If they are still stuck using branded experience language, don’t hire them. If they don’t ask you about your customer segmentation, don’t hire them. And if they aren’t talking about customer jobs-to-be-done, experience platforms and design thinking, don’t hire them either. It’s time to expect more from your CEX consultants; your customers will thank you!

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

  6. A few thoughts on Andy and Graham’s comments. I would agree segmentation is key. Designing a Customer Experience (#CX) around segments is clearly important and in so doing you are putting in place structured methodologies.

    We know all Customers are different and as Graham says, there could be 100s of different segmentation which would be impractical to manage, therefore we need to get to the Customers core and design an experience that fits many people. This is why we focus on Customer emotions. At the core of every person are emotions. Everything we do is driven by emotions. Therefore if you are designing an CX then planning to evoke Customers emotions, in my view this is at the heart (excuse the pun :-)) of the matter.

    People talk about what Customer ‘want’. In my experience, all too often this is dealt with at a superficial level. My belief is ‘Customer wants’ need to be addressed from a deeper emotional understanding of what is driving their desire. When you understand this you can truly design an emotionally engaging CX.

    Getting back to the original article in Science Daily, within your CX there are subconscious signals that you can build into your experience that will evoke emotions. People do this naturally in the personal lives. For example, stop and consider the planning of a romantic evening. What do you do? Maybe you put on soft lights; you play nice slow music; maybe light scented candles; maybe you have brought her favourite flowers or chocolates etc. All this is done to create an emotional reaction. All these signals subconscious sending signals that tell the person that you ‘care’ from them. Of course, you may need to segment this experience. One person may like Jazz music and another may like Soul. The point is it is designed and deliberate and this experience will probably work with the majority of people to evoke the desired emotions.

    My original post simply says these signals are picked up in 120 milliseconds. So think to yourself what are the signals we are giving our Customers. Are you like the bank who have pens on chains? What emotions are you trying to evoke by doing that? What does this say about your experience?

    Great debate….lets hear views from others as well…

    Colin Shaw
    International Author. Lastest book “The DNA of Customer Experience”

    Follow me on Twitter:


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