Don’t Think of a White Bear! How True Implicit Association Measures Differ from Fast Explicit Measures

By Alena Jule
August 12, 2014

Behavioral science is making incredible strides to help us all understand what we want, even if we can’t or won’t say it.
Dr. Aaron Reid, our Chief Behavioral Scientist at Sentient Decision Science, illustrates how behavioral science has brought us the ability to bring out that can’t say/won’t say through true implicit association measures in this video from the Insight Innovation Exchange (IIeX).
What you will learn about in this video:

  • Automatic, Irrepressible Cognition & System 1 Processing
  • Automatic Associations
  • Fast Explicit Research Techniques versus True Implicit Research Techniques

>> Dr. Reid: What just happened? No, really! Don’t think of a white bear. You can’t help it. Right? When someone says “don’t think of a white bear,” what comes to mind?” A white bear. “Oh I wasn’t supposed to think about that! Stop!”
When somebody shows you a picture of a white bear, what happens? Your associations with white bears come to mind. Social psychologists use that trick to illustrate something called Automatic Irrepressible Cognition. We call it a “prime.

So when we show you a white bear, or a brand, or a package, or a product, or expose you to an advertisement, we’re priming you. The associations that you have with those stimuli automatically come to mind. You can’t stop them from coming to mind. They come to mind, and then maybe you try to repress them. But they’ve already come to mind. That is System 1 processing. It’s associative in nature. Your associations with stimulus are automatically activated. It happens automatically, without your control.

The same is true when we show you a brand. Let’s do Coca-Cola, we are in Atlanta. Love Pepsi, but let’s do Coca-Cola [laughs]. If we show you the Coca-Cola brand, just like a white bear, your associations with that brand are activated.

So when you see Coca-Cola, what do you think of? Maybe global? Maybe happiness, that’s certainly a perceived perception of that brand. Refreshing might be an attribute that you think of that brand. Calories, maybe on the negative side. These associations aren’t always positive. But those associations that you have either move you toward, or away from whatever that stimulus is. If they’re positive, I’m moving toward, on average. If they’re negative, I’m moving away, on average.

We’ve known this in marketing for years: that we want our attributes to be top-of-mind. But now, we actually have a vocabulary for talking about it. There is a neural basis for “top-of-mind,” and it is the accessibility of those attributes when you’re exposed to a representation, in this case, of that brand.

So how can we measure those automatic associations? Here’s an example of a non-implicit technique. We call this a “fast explicit technique.” So let’s say I’m going to measure your response time. I’m going to show you logos on a screen, and I’m going to ask you to swipe towards yourself if you like the brand, and to swipe away from yourself if you dislike the brand. And then I’m going to time you to see how long it takes to make that judgement. I’m just trying to measure an affinity.

So as you can see there, Coca-Cola appears on the screen, you swipe it, I measure your response time. What do I have there?
I have an indirect measure, right? Because it’s a response latency. But, does it meet the other criteria? I’m asking you to make an explicit judgement. It’s intentional and it’s controllable. You can modify your answer. And you have to access System 2 thinking. You have to say to yourself, “do I like Coca-Cola?” and then you have to swipe. That is System 2 thinking. It’s if/then. It’s propositional. Even if I limit your response to less than one second, you still have to access System 2 thinking to make that answer. It’s intentional and it’s controllable.
But the point here is that, while that’s very valuable—it’s actually a good technique, and we’ll show how predictive it is—but it’s not implicit. In implicit research techniques, we need the judgement to be separate from the brand prime. So might show you a logo on the screen, like Coca-Cola, and then ask you to engage in a separate judgement task.

Emotions are going to appear on the screen. If they are negative, swipe them away. If they are positive, swipe them toward yourself. The brand appears on the screen for half a second. It’s a prime. Just like the white bear, you can’t stop your associations from becoming active. They influence your ability to make the subsequent judgement. If they’re consistent with that judgement, you can make it faster. If they’re inconsistent, it creates cognitive dissonance, and you’re slower and you make more errors.
So Coca-Cola. Is this emotion negative or positive? It’s negative. If I love Coke, that’s harder for me to do after seeing the Coke logo. That is indirect, uncontrollable, and an unintentional evaluation. I’m not asking you to tell me how you feel about Coke. I’m measuring how you feel about Coke by priming you, and putting you in a separate judgement task.

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