Insights from Psychology: Implicit Vocabulary

System 1. System 2. Implicit. Explicit. Attitudes. Decisions. These words are all the buzz in the market research industry as theories of the mind from behavioral science become more accessible and the desire for data-driven decision-making in business stays strong. Adopting these complex theories of how the mind and behavior influence one another can prove to be overwhelming to individuals without a background in psychological science, and often these terms become confused with one another.

It is not uncommon to see the phrase “System 1/implicit research” in articles and marketing materials, giving the impression that these two terms are synonymous. But are they?

Implicit and explicit attitudes

To begin, it’s important to mention that in the field of psychological science, the term “attitude” has a very narrow definition compared to how we may use it in our day-to-day life. Colloquially, “attitude” is often thought of as a point of view or a frame of mind, whereas a belief is the thought that something is true.

The terms explicit and implicit refer to the ability to observe something directly, or not. Explicit attitudes and beliefs are those that you have conscious awareness of. If asked, I would tell you that I like pizza (an attitude) and that pizza tastes good (a belief). I may not always be actively thinking about my attitudes and beliefs about pizza, but in the right situation, my mind will bring these thoughts and feelings to my attention—making them explicit. I am aware of them.

Implicit attitudes and beliefs are those that we’re not actually aware that we hold. The Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT), which brought these concepts of implicit and explicit attitudes into the limelight, measures both explicit and implicit attitudes on hot topics, such as racism, ageism, sexism, etc. These areas are notorious for people expressing one explicit attitude/belief (e.g., I am not sexist; both men and women are good) but are unaware they actually hold a bias which can influence their decision-making and behaviors—their implicit attitude.

These types of hot topics are places we would likely expect explicit and implicit attitudes to differ. Being aware of my implicit beliefs may cause anxiety. It’s not necessarily the type of person I want to be, and I may not want to be perceived like that by others.

This awareness of conflicting attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors creates what is called cognitive dissonance, an unpleasant sensation from the mismatch of these elements. Our minds are highly motivated to protect against these feelings, and keeping these conflicting implicit attitudes and beliefs unconscious is one of the ways our minds accomplish this.

Our minds are happiest when all these elements match. Most of the things we encounter in our day-to-day lives are not the target of potential cognitive dissonance. It’s important to note the difference. Those explicit thoughts and feelings we have towards our pets, coffee, cars, and fabric softeners are most likely the same thoughts and feelings that permeate our minds. There are no conflicting elements.

System 1 and System 2

The terms System 1 and System 2 refer to different types of decision-making processes, but both systems will generally result in explicit behaviors (including giving responses to a survey question).

System 1 decision-making occurs quickly and with little awareness, if any. It relies on the use of mental shortcuts to make reliable. However, not imperfect, conclusions by accessing readily available information in the mind.

System 2 decision-making is slower, occurs within conscious awareness, and tries to more thoroughly evaluate the information being considered before coming to a conclusion.

Most of our daily decision-making; however, occurs at the System 1 level. Certain conditions are required for System 2 thinking: time, mental energy, and motivation.

Why “System 1/implicit”?

The lumping together of System 1 decision-making and the term “implicit” may have arisen out of an oversimplification of how the two are related. When it comes to the decision-making process, System 1 thinking happens unconsciously. There are many heuristics the mind uses to make these quick decisions—the availability heuristic, the representativeness heuristic, confirmation bias, satisficing, the halo effect—just to name a few. And because it all takes place unconsciously¸ you’re likely unaware of which heuristic your mind employs.

This doesn’t mean that the conclusions of System 1 decision-making are always implicit. Many of our explicit and overt behaviors and responses—of which we‘re fully aware we’ve performed—are selected through System 1 thinking. But just because the process is implicit, it doesn’t necessarily mean the result is as well.

Furthermore, the information that our System 1 heuristics rely on may or may not be explicit attitudes and beliefs. Just because the process is unconscious, that doesn’t always mean the information used in that process is unavailable to our conscious mind. If we have no underlying and inaccessible bias, then (for the reasons stated above) there’s no reason to suspect that the results of a System 1 decision would differ from a System 2 decision.

If our implicit and explicit attitudes and beliefs do differ (which recall, is generally not the case) then System 2 thinking is the place where explicit attitudes have a chance to override any implicit attitudes or beliefs (aka biases) that we don’t want to emerge. But because either time, mental energy, or motivation are required elements to engage in System 2 thinking.

If just one of these is unavailable then System 1 thinking will rely on the most readily available information in the mind for its mental shortcut process. If the implicit biases are particularly strong or have been brought closer to the surface due to environmental circumstances (i.e., priming), then it will be these implicit elements that inform the quickly-made decision.

Even when there is ample opportunity for System 2 thinking, implicit attitudes and beliefs may still influence the outcome. System 2 thinking can take into consideration the System 1 mental shortcut conclusions, but give you control to decide something else instead. System 2 is not guaranteed to reach a different conclusion than System 1, especially if your System 2 thinking finds the System 1 answer agreeable and well-founded. This is particularly the case when there’s no dissonance created between implicit and explicit attitudes or beliefs.

Knowledge review

So far, we have hopefully clarified a few points.

  • System 1 and System 2 refer to decision-making processes.
    • System 1 occurs unconsciously and requires little to no resources.
    • System 2 occurs consciously and requires time, mental energy, and motivation.
  • Implicit and explicit attitudes and beliefs
    • Attitudes are generally positive or negative feelings towards something, and beliefs are statements perceived as truth.
    • Implicit and explicit attitudes/beliefs can differ when consciously acknowledging a given stance could create cognitive dissonance (such as acknowledging you lied when you want to believe you are an honest person).
  • Implicit attitudes/beliefs and decision making
    • Implicit attitudes/beliefs (those that differ from the explicit) are more likely to influence your behavior when making System 1 decisions.
    • Implicit attitudes/beliefs can still influence System 2 decisions, but this conscious decision-making process allows for explicit attitudes to override them.

System 1, implicit, and research methodology

Now armed with this knowledge, we can ask ourselves: What is the goal of our market research? What are we trying to uncover and which, if any, of these psychological concepts may be worth considering?

One way that market research is adopting these considerations is with System 1 research. Knowing that most of our daily decisions are made using System 1 decision processes, market researchers want to ensure that the decisions they’re capturing in survey research tap into the same processes these consumers would use in a real-world environment. By taking them out of the store, and filling surveys with open-ended questions like “why did you give this answer,” the hope and presumption is that respondents engage in System 2 thinking to provide thoughtful and considered answers.

System 1 research design encourages respondents to engage in that quick, heuristic-driven thinking. Look for a question type that provides this type of experience by forcing respondents to make decisions quickly, thus compromising the time element required for System 2 thinking.

Identifying whether the attitudes and beliefs captured by this tool are implicit or explicit is not the goal. A respondent may indicate that the words “clean”, “fresh”, and “good” are associated with the product they are shown. But whether this attitude of “good” and belief of the product being “fresh” and “clean” are known to the respondent consciously or not (i.e., is their explicit or implicit attitude) is not part of the analysis.

Implicit research tries to uncover the content of these attitudes and beliefs—often trying to determine if they are aligned with explicit attitudes or not. Harvard’s IAT begins by asking participants directly what their attitudes and beliefs are. This is their measure of explicit attitude.

The task participants are then given appears to be a simple sorting task. They are provided with two sets of items, such as words and faces, and told which category each item belongs to (words are assigned to either good or bad, and faces are assigned to either male or female).

The participant merely needs to put the item in the correct category as fast as possible. To the respondent, it seems like an accuracy challenge, but the research is actually collecting their response times and identifying when there may be a conflict between competing categories.

For example, when good is paired with female on the screen, a respondent with a sexist bias may have their System 1 process tell them to place the female face in the “bad/male” box (because of a bias that female = bad). However, then System 2 thinking hops in to tell them that is the wrong answer, and it belongs in the other “good/female” box. This additional time for System 2 to kick in is interpreted as the need to override the implicit bias.

Other question types employ an implicit research technique to uncover how implicit attitudes towards a product align with explicit attitudes and how the two may influence purchase intent. Rather than a reaction time measure, these tools use a word-fragment completion task that asks respondents to complete word puzzles.

The overt task appears to be one that simply asks them to solve as many words as possible, when the indirect element is actually focused on a subset of keywords and identifying if these words were solved with a particular solution. This is used as a measure of approach motivation, inherently related to a fundamentally positive attitude toward the subject matter.

Choosing the right approach for you

Borrowing from psychological science to build integrity in market research is a heavy lift that can lead to oversimplifications and buzzwords. The best thing you can do is arm yourself with the knowledge of what methods would best help you get the answers you need for your business.

Do you want to capture decisions in survey research that mimic the processes people may use in real-life scenarios?

  • Look for System 1 research that puts constraints on respondents’ abilities to use System 2 thinking, such as compromising time or mental energy.

Are you curious if you should be trying to uncover what consumers’ implicit attitudes and beliefs towards your product are?

  • Start by looking to find out if implicit and explicit attitudes towards your product are even conflicting and which one ultimately drives purchase intent.
  • If you discover that for your particular product there is little difference and/or explicit attitudes are the primary drivers, stick to your traditional research. It’s already working for you.
    • If you discover that implicit attitudes may be the bigger driver, consider expanding your research into other technologies that offer this level of insight and stay tuned for more and more tools to become available in the future.