Fast responses and unconscious preferences

Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy

March 30, 2021

The Fast Response Test

As part of Neurons' offering of online tests, through our NeuroOnline solutions, the FRT has rapidly become one of the strong sources of measures of customers' unconscious motivations and preferences. The test itself is a combination of two main things:

  1. a binary yes/no question
  2. a measure of response latency in milliseconds

Through this, it is possible to calculate the time it takes for a participant to respond yes or no to a given question. For example:

  • "Do you like IKEA?"
  • "Do you recommend Coca-Cola?"
  • "Do you trust VISA?"

Using standardized, brief questions like this, it is possible to measure both the yes/no ratio, but also the response time associated with each type of response. But what does the response time actually mean? To better understand this, we need to both understand the human valuation system, and how it is wired in the brain.,

Values are linked to energy

The first token to understand is that as humans -- or any organisms for that matter -- we are constantly dealing with an "energy budget." Here, energy becomes a currency for the brain: for something we need or desire, we are generally willing to spend more time and energy to achieve it.Note that "energy" here can mean many things, including:

  • time spent
  • energy spent
  • willingness to buy
  • price sensitivity

In disciplines such as decision neuroscience, neuroeconomics, and consumer neuroscience we have seen that energy expenditure are good tokens for understanding preference. Let's take them in turn briefly:

Time spent

If there's one thing we can see consumers do when they are engaged, it is that they are spending time on the thing that is engaging them. Time that is spent on a product is also chosen as the time not spent on other things. Here, the easiest metric to use is what we call Total Fixation Duration (TFD) in eye-tracking metrics. The more time someone spends looking at something, the more involved they are, and the more likely it is  that they like it and will choose it (or are scared to death by it...).

A close up of a clock face.

Crucially, when there is a decision between options, the more similar the choices are in value, the more time it will take for a person to make up her or his mind. Here, time spent is an indication of how easy or hard a choice is. In a study from my own lab, we showed this for risky choice. When testing this using fMRI , we would that this effect was related to the engagement of the amygdala.

Energy spent

Similarly to time, the energy spent on something is a good indication of how much it is valued. Here, "energy spend" can be seen as many things, such as response speed (as seen above), how hard you respond (e.g., grip strength), as well as whether you persevere in your response (e.g., if a button press does not lead to change the first time, how likely are you to start repeating the button press?).For example, in a study by Pessiglione and colleagues, it was shown that unconscious motivation was related to the physical effort that people exerted when making their choice. The more they wanted something, the harder their motor response.

Willingness to buy

One of the direct consequences of implicit consumer preference is that it is directly related to their willingness to purchase something. For example, it has been shown that implicit attitudes towards other cultures are strongly related to the willingness to purchase products from that culture. One of the hallmark studies of neuromarketing by Brian Knutson also showed that our willingness to buy is related to an early and unconscious product response in deep subcortical brain regions such as the ventral striatum.

Price sensitivity

A final point is that higher product preference can also be found as a reduction in price sensitivity. In other words, when we prefer a product, we are more likely to pay a higher price for it than a comparable but less preferred product.'

Dollar notes and three coins.

The direct brain connection between value and action

So far, we have seen that response time can be seen as a "confidence" in one's binary response to a choice between two options. If you clearly prefer one option more than another, the response to that item is faster. If you like or dislike both options, you'll spend a bit more time deliberating. In both cases, the response time can be used as an index of your choice confidence.The real kicker is when we look at how the brain is organized for this. Let's look back at some of the studies we have mentioned earlier: in the Knutson study, it was found that early responses of the ventral striatum were related to higher purchase intent. The same region was also found to be engaged in the Pessiglione study when people made more forceful responses.

A human head with the brain exposed and the basal ganglia highlighted in orange.
The basal ganglia

The basal ganglia[/caption]There's something interesting about this region of the brain, where the ventral striatum is part of a conglomerate we call the basal ganglia. On the one hand, it is related to our unconscious valuation of choice options. But the second, and often forgotten aspect, is that the same region is more or less directly connected to our body responses.Thus, the higher engagement of the basal ganglia, the more likely it is that it will lead to direct -- and impulsive -- action!Thus, when we are measuring response times, such as with the Fast Response Test on our NeuroOnline test battery, we are measuring both people's conscious response and their unconscious motivation towards the response options. Taken together, the FRT allows us to have a highly scalable metric for understanding implicit consumer motivation.

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