Your life is a maze, and you don’t have the volition to decide which way to go — Implicit awareness and supermarket psychology

What are implicit measures? They unconsciously control how we make decisions, without awareness that we’ve been influenced by something that seems so normal (such as thoughts we’ve accumulated in the past). Scientists have tried finding ways to study this “phenomena”, resulting in the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT was invented to measure this automatic association that a person creates between two mental concepts in their mind. It is normally used to measure implicit cognition processes such as memory, perception, and attitude. This test is taken on a computer, where a participant must categorize target concepts with a specific attribute. The better response time there is for a pairing, the stronger the assumption that those pairings are linked tighter in memory.

Although there is plenty of supporting evidence that the IAT is consistent (or else it wouldn’t have been around for so long!), one criticism is that it’s test-retest reliability is very poor, only at around 0.6. It can vary between changes in characteristics of trait and state. For example, a Race IAT had shown that overall scores might be less biased against African Americans if a subject had been given black exemplars beforehand. Scores might also fluctuate if the IAT is conducted in different languages. One study in particular found that participants from Morocco (fluent in French and Arabic) were biased if they had completed the IAT in their native language.

How practical are the results of this test?

What I find particularly interesting is not that we have figured out a process of measuring implicit association, but just how prevalent and easily it has worked to intertwine itself into our daily lives, without our own knowledge.

Take a look at this study. Houben et al. (2010) hypothesized that implicit attitude towards alcohol will have an effect on drinking behavior. Using evaluative conditioning they were able to conclude that participated exposed alcohol-related cues linked with negative stimuli showed stronger negative implicit attitudes towards alcohol and even consumed less alcohol compared to controls. Yet, interesting enough was that this effect was only able to be observed if the alcohol-related cues with paired up with general negative pictures, but it was NOT when paired with pictures of frowning faces. Alone, this could be a breakthrough in a procedure that could change drinking behavior — thus leading us to believe that it could become useful in the future to fight alcoholism.

Despite the fact that the IAT is consistent among numerous studies, conflicting evidence exists (as with all of science). Lebens et al. conducted a study to determine whether a picture-picture evaluative conditioning procedure could alter snack food and food consumerism behavior. In this experiment, pictures of snacks were paired with negatively valenced female body shapes, and pictures of fruits with positively valenced female body shapes.

Using a positive and negative unipolar single category Implicit Association Test, they concluded that participants had a less positive association with high-fat foods on the positive IAT and a more negative association with these foods on the negative IAT. More importantly, it changed perception without any behavioral differences. That can mean that this type of associative learning may have changed food evaluations, even with absent behavioral effects.

Do you think you can avoid it? Let’s take a common routine…

Imagine yourself as you first enter a supermarket. You walk into the supermarket looking for eggs, milk, and bananas. That’s all you need. You walk out with a whole shopping cart full of food. You can’t help but question yourself, how did you let this happen?? You’ve walked straight into a trap.

Did you ever notice that there are cookies and cakes in plastic boxes placed on tables on either side of you as you enter? Or that you can both see and smell the bakery directly in front of you? That the colors of the fruits, vegetables, and flowers are so visually appealing? All of a sudden you’re in a better mood; cupcakes colored with frosting and dusted with sprinkles are beckoning you. The smells trigger your salivary glands, and you may start to impulsively buy things you never even entered the store for.

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You continue on your journey past the produce to find you’ve suddenly been flooded with the color red on price tags. We’ve been wired to automatically think “there’s a sale!” You pick up a jar of mayonnaise, the price tag reads $2.99. In your mind, you’ve automatically round it down to be perceived as $2 rather than $3. You place it in your cart.

As you move up the salad dressing aisle to shortcut to the milk, you hear music coming from the speaker overhead. It’s calming, with a slow tempo, a somewhat vague yet familiar tune. It makes you feel more relaxed; not realizing that all of a sudden you’ve been lingering around way too long deciding on the type of balsamic vinaigrette you’re going to buy (did you even come here to buy some?). You haven’t even noticed how long you’ve stood there; who knew that a simple change of music had such a drastic effect on you. According to a study by Ronald Milliman (1982), the average daily gross sales in a supermarket increased from $12,112.35 for fast tempo music to $16, 740.23 for slow tempo music. You had no awareness about the impact this had on you. With this concept in mind — Does this mean that restaurants should play upbeat music to increase the seat-turnover rate, leading to a higher profit?

As you walk out of the aisle to pick up eggs, you turn circle around a corner and gasp. Some nice old lady with plastic gloves is handing out little sausages. You walk by, telling yourself that you don’t need it, decide otherwise, take two steps backwards and grab a small toothpick off the serving tray. Suddenly hungry and tempted by the tastes that have entered your mouth, you might decide to buy this sausage randomly offered to you; something you otherwise would have never even took a second look at.

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You decide all of a sudden to buy cereal — you remembered that morning the box was nearly empty! The store-brand granola is on the bottom shelf, forcing you to bend down and pick it up. Is it worth it, or do the ones at eye-level, with all-natural green and brown labeling, look more appealing to you? Sigurdsson et al.(2009) found that the placement of potato chips on the middle shelf led to the highest percentage of purchase. Perhaps because its the easiest to take off the shelf, you grab the expensive cereal. Into the cart it goes.

40 minutes later, there are just too many decisions to make. You start buying things, only as a result of an emotional overload. You stop making rational decisions, you’ve spent enough time in this supermarket!

Supermarket Layout

Dr. Paul Harrison figured out some tricks supermarkets use to reel you in:

  • If you enter in on the right side, you would mostly likely move counterclockwise throughout the supermarket (and vice versa).
  • By shopping in a counterclockwise direction, it’s been shown that shoppers spend, on average, $2 more per trip.

In opposition to what you’d normally think, people do not systematically walk down each and every aisle. We tend to briefly step into an aisle, grab what is needed, and continue on. We usually stick to the a common route as well: the perimeter of the supermarket. This leads supermarkets to place their best items (ones that sell at the highest rates, or familiar brands) in “end-cap” displays, thus increasing traffic and attention.

What do we normally go to the supermarket to buy? Milk, bread and eggs. Where are they located? At the back of the store, that way we are forced to walk through the entire store, seeing other tantalizing products along the way. Yet Dr. Harrison thinks from another perspective. He says that placing bread and milk at the back of the store might be inefficient, and they should instead be stacked towards the front of the store with more impulse purchases close-by. (I myself, have seen that near the cash registers, they now have milk, sweets, and cheap movies in metal crates).

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Have you also noticed that there usually aren’t windows in supermarkets? This discourages us from realizing how much time is passing, as there are no present external cues. If it’s difficult to automatically figure out what time it is, we’ll happily spend more time shopping without the worry that we are “wasting time.”

You might ask, now how can we stop this manipulation? By gaining a sense of awareness in order to decrease the amount of power supermarket psychology has over us.

Also just….Don’t shop when you’re hungry.

How forming habits leads to predictability, thus giving supermarkets greater control.

The process of forming habits

A neuroscientist at MIT was running experiments in mice about habit formation. They were placed in a maze, waited as a click cued the gate to open, with a piece of chocolate waiting at the end as a reward. Behaviorally they would walk up and down each leg of the maze, seeming arbitrarily, sniffing as they went along. As the experiment was repeated over and over again, the scientists found that the activity from the neurosensors implanted in their brain went from an initial explosion, and then started to decrease. As the rats had learned to get to the reward faster, the path decisions became more automatic, and they started thinking less. This automatic routine becomes simply just a behavioral chunk.

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Habits are an interesting topic, especially those to do with motor skills. Over time, things become automatic, and you no longer put as much thought into them as you once did. In fact, bringing awareness to procedural skill negatively impacts performance.This kind of procedural memory is implicit, inflexible and is a retention without remembering.

For example, as a child, I learned to play the piano. My initial learning stage was facilitated by explicit knowledge (with the use of a cerebellar network), where my piano teacher physically moved my fingers onto the keys. Over time, my skills started to consolidate (using a striatal network for later recall) and I had learned to the point where I was able implicitly play without awareness. I could play without sheet music, even sometimes with my eyes closed. Even now, there are songs I can play simply through memory, that I haven’t played for 10 years. My brain had forced this repeated behavior to become a habit, in order to save cognitive power.

Habits can be formed by conditioning, where some kind of cue triggers our brains to fall from complete focus into an automatic stage, taken over by habit. A routine comes into play (might be physical or emotional) followed by a reward, which allows us to remember that this habit is useful for the future.

Even in supermarket shopping, we tend to form habits. We tend to walk in the same direction, head to the same sections in sequential order, already have a list in hand of products in mind, and know which brand we’re going to pick up. Without awareness, its almost as if we are not in control. This behavior happens naturally. We only know how to control them once we become aware. In the case of supermarket shopping, are we aware of such habits? Or how we’ve been influenced to form our habits? For example, how do we learn to decide to pick up a product,buy it, develop trust with it and then become loyal to that brand?

Well, to start off, product packaging plays a huge role — it becomes the stimulus in Pavlov’s traditional classical conditioning theory. Once we (as the subject) have been exposed, it affects our consumer attitude towards products. This process is cognitively stressful; we choose things that have bright colors, exciting names, that are all natural or unprocessed. The manner in which a product is packaged and labeled provides the customer with visceral cues to help make decisions easier. We make a decision, realize its just what we need and stick to the product. When prices drop low enough, and we have established trust with the item that has been bought, we skip any stressful steps in buying a new product and make the impulse decision to take the more familiar one.

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One study done at Duke University concluded that habits, rather than conscious decision making, influences 45% of the decisions we make each day. Every single aspect that supermarkets act upon, leads us to form lifelong habits.

How do companies take advantage of this?

To start off, supermarkets don’t just have security cameras to keep an eye out for shoplifters. Footage is analyzed by psychologists to observe shopping behaviors. Also, if you’ve signed up for a membership card, they can easily figure out exactly what you buy, when, and how often. From here, they can send you coupons tailored exactly what you are more likely to purchase.

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NYTimes author Charles Duhigg provided insight into just how much companies actually know about us. They collect information by assigning “guest IDs” when you have filled out questionnaires, signed up for newsletters, or paid with a credit cards They use this information to suggest products that seem most appealing to you. Stores can even take the next step to buy data about “your ethnicity, job history, [and] the magazines you read.”

Nowadays, major companies even have a separate “predictive analysis” department based on consumers’ shopping habits and even their personal habits. Over the last few years, there has been an increase in the field of habit formation, which is now a topic well funded at major universities and institutions. Duhigg says, “there is a calculus, it turns out, for mastering our subconscious urges. For companies like Target, the exhaustive rendering of our conscious and unconscious patterns into data sets and algorithms has revolutionized what they know about us and, therefore, how precisely they can sell.”

Andrew Pole, a statistician for Target, created a computerized pregnancy-model as a way to predict when women would most likely be pregnant. It sounds crazy, I know. He found that when going through a major life event- your shopping habits become flexible.

For example, if you get married perhaps you’ll buy a new kind of cereal. At this moment, you might not even notice or care that your shopping habits have changed — but this is crucial for retailers (this is the time to pounce when you’re most vulnerable). One of the most important life events, of course, is the arrival of a baby — once a company is able to target pregnant shoppers, their revenue will exponentially increase.

Pole took Target’s baby-shower registry and started observing how habits changed as a woman got closer to her due date. He started finding patterns; in the first 2 weeks, women will stock up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc and in the beginning of the 2nd trimester, they start buying large amounts of unscented lotion. Once they start buying scent-free soap, hand sanitizer and washcloths, that’s the signal that they could be getting closer to their due date.

With the data he collected, Pole could “identify 25 different products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.”

Over time, he realized that women wouldn’t want a multi-billion dollar company like Target to know that they were pregnant. He started subtly adding in pregnancy ads alongside things women wouldn’t necessarily buy- as if it looked like all products were chosen at random. Using the same cues and rewards that they already knew about customers, he was able to “insert a new routine.” He states, “There’s a cue (“Oh, a coupon for something I need!”) a routine (“Buy! Buy! Buy!”) and a reward (“I can take that off my list”). And once the shopper is inside the store, Target will hit her with cues and rewards to entice her to purchase everything she normally buys somewhere else.”

Once the woman starts picking up things for the baby, she will realize as she passes the aisles that its just easier to pick up a carton of eggs, or a new toothbrush here instead of going into a new store. Just in the blink of an eye, they’re hooked, and their trust in Target has been secured. Right after he implemented his model and started this new ad campaign, Target’s revenues exploded from $44 billion to $67 billion.

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Implicit awareness is a real thing, whether you choose to be informed about it or not. We are acted upon by external forces, that choose what habits we form and what decisions we make. Supermarkets use all kinds of perceptual tricks: sounds, lighting, colors and taste in order to lure you in and soon enough you’ve spent more money than you thought you would have. Once you’re in, they find even more ways to tailor their products to you, to make you more likely to purchase things from them. Do you still think you’re in control? Or are you being involuntarily controlled?

After exploring all these aspects, I still look forward to going to the grocery store. It is always an enjoyable and exciting experience for me to discover new things. But this time will be different. Perhaps because I’m explicitly aware of my surroundings.