Don't Blink!: Consumer Preference Forms in as little as a Third of a Second

By Aaron Reid
September 8, 2011
A new article in the journal of Judgment & Decision Making has demonstrated that consumer preference for packaged goods can form in as little as 300 milliseconds. Furthermore, these third-of-a-second preferences correspond with preferences formed through lengthy deliberation up to 95% of the time. These findings have profound implications for the importance of understanding automatic action by shoppers in the aisle, particularly when consumers are in a hot-state (see our talk about automatic action at Future M). Across four studies, Milosavljevic, Koch & Rangel (2011) used a novel eye-movement measurement technique to assess the immediacy of preference formation between 750 pairs of consumer packaged snacks (e.g. Doritos, Snickers, etc.). In their experimental paradigm, the researchers presented two snacks on a screen for 20 milliseconds, and then immediately replaced those snacks with two gray circles. The participant’s task was to choose between the two products by simply looking in the direction of the one they preferred. The eye-tracking measurement tool detected immediate saccades and any movement greater than 2 degrees in the direction of a product was counted as an indication of preference. To test the accuracy of these split second choices, the researchers correlated the eye-movement indicated preferences with previously reported degree of preference measures for each product. In cases where one product was strongly preferred over its comparison product (i.e. an easy decision), the correspondence between the split-second preferences and the deliberated preferences was 95%. Even in cases where two products were very close in terms of preference (i.e. a hard decision) the split-second preferences corresponded with the deliberated preferences in 74.2% of the cases. The average correspondence between split-second and deliberated preferences across all 750 decisions was 83%. Marketers should take these results as renewed evidence of the importance of connecting their brands and products with the consumer subconscious. The research reinforces the premise that consumer emotional preference for products is primary and that rational justification for purchase follows slowly behind. CPG marketers need that emotional association to occur immediately in order to incite automatic action. Taken as a whole, these findings justify significant investment in brand building and package design optimization even in a down economy. If consumers can form preferences between product choices in as little as a third of a second, brand and product managers need to ensure that consumer automatic associations are positive and powerful. To learn more about how to assess the automatic associations with your products and brands, contact us at
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Aaron Reid


Founder & CEO, Sentient Decision Science, Inc.



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