Gladwell’s Great (Dis)service to Market Research and How Clients Are Catching On

Aaron Reid
Ph.D. Chief Behavioral Scientist, Sentient Decision Science

Malcolm Gladwell is a great writer. He possesses a rare ability to translate arcane academic experimentation into easily understood and compelling narrative.

“Blink,” his breakthrough popular science book on non-conscious thought processes, is a great example of his translation skill. In it, Gladwell humanizes experimental psychology results on the non-conscious by telling stories about diverse and broadly relatable life situations, like revealing the indicators of lasting marriage versus divorce, the drivers of racial tensions in the U.S. and South Africa, and detailing how physicians make diagnoses in the ER.

This accessible read on the human subconscious opened up a flood of discussion and innovative thinking on measurement of the consumer subconscious in market research and insights circles. And for that, it stands in a position of great service to our industry.

However, one of the casualties of accessible translation is often the accuracy of important details on the science being translated.¹

“Blink” and You’ll Miss the Distinction

“Blink” is not precise enough in its distinction between System 1 and System 2 processing in the human mind. And through that lack of precision has crept a misunderstanding of implicit processing and the development of misguided methods that fail to isolate non-conscious from conscious processing in market research.

Gladwell’s loose characterization of “snap” judgments and thin slicing as “non-conscious” may have inadvertently opened up the current can of worms around what truly constitutes a measure of non-conscious (or automatic) associations in the human mind. Many researchers were inspired by the idea of how measuring quick judgments could provide insight into what consumers are feeling on a gut level.

And the addition of response latency (i.e. the amount of time it takes to complete a task or answer a question) gave researchers an indirect measure of the strength of the attitude they were trying to capture. These response latencies were quickly, and erroneously, dubbed “implicit” measures either through a lack of knowledge on the science or simply a desire to capitalize on the industry’s latest buzzword.

Wasted Investments

The trouble here is for clients, in that a measure of response latency by itself, does not guarantee you’re getting insight on the consumer non-conscious. (If you’re interested in the scientific detail we’ve written extensively on the topics and have included related links at the end of this post.) And if you’re a client investing in implicit research because you need novel insight on the drivers of consumer behavior, wouldn’t you expect the results you get back to be actual implicit data, not merely a slight variation on the conscious questions you already ask?

If the data you get back doesn’t differ meaningfully from your current conscious approaches, then not only is the investment in the research project wasted, but more importantly, you haven’t gained the critical insight you need to differentiate and be more competitive in the market.

This outcome, arising in part from Gladwell’s lack of precision around what constitutes non-conscious processing,² ends up being a great disservice to the research and insights industry. Fortunately, clients are catching on.

No Phony Implicit Research, Please

We now hear unsolicited requests for clarification on whether the proposed methods are true implicit or just quick conscious (a.k.a “fast explicit”) judgments. We’ve even heard prospective clients say, “I don’t want to do any phony implicit research.” Perhaps even more importantly, clients are now seeing the value in both approaches.

Many clients have determined use cases where the quick conscious approach is an advantage over their current survey questions (e.g. replacing conscious Likert scale questions of brand attribute associations is a great use of quick conscious response latency techniques). Simultaneously, these same clients know that if they need to get around the “can’t say”/“won’t say” problem in market research, a quick conscious response latency study won’t cut it. They need a true implicit technique.

Why We’re Hopeful

Each of these developments are encouraging for the advancement of non-conscious measurement in market research. As a behavioral scientist this gives me a sense of confidence in the industry’s ability to ultimately make a meaningful contribution to the scientific literature. And as a businessman this gives me a great sense of relief, that after all of the work that scientific pioneers have put in to advancing behavioral science in business, we won’t see it evaporate in the blink of an eye due to imprecise techniques that don’t deliver on the true promise of non-conscious measurement.


  1. See Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, as a shining exception to this rule with accessible scientific translation that simultaneously keeps the integrity of the science intact.
  2. For a much more egregious example, see Lindstrom’s Buyology.

Learn more about true implicit by downloading our “Is It Implicit” white paper found in the sidebar or dive into these related blog posts:


Sentient Prime Implicit Research Studies

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