Subconscious wanderlust

Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy

October 24, 2019

How do we make choices on where to travel? Whether an upcoming trip is for studies, work or holiday, these choices regard future outcomes. but our understanding of these processes are not completely unraveled. In this study, Neurons worked with Zayed University in Dubai to understand destination preference. The paper was recently published in Scientific Reports.

Destination preference in the brain

When we make choices about future outcomes, we are engaging in something often referred to as intertemporal choices. Such choices include whether to work out or rest, to eat healthy foods, or to make choices that are environmentally friendly. At the core, these intertemporal choices are known to be associated with the "battle" between whether to discount the immediate cost (e.g., to forego a chocolate bar) or whether to discount a future outcome (e.g., to lose weight).

As a well-studied phenomenon in behavioral economics and neuroeconomics, we know that this battle also is reflected in how the brain is wired: immediate goals are typically driven by deeper and more emotional structures (such as the ventral striatum and surrounding basal ganglia) while future goals are represented in more cortical areas (e.g., the prefrontal cortex). This reflects that even travel choices can be a tug of war between desires and "rational" choices.

Nevertheless, this has not been studied in sufficient details in academic studies of travel and tourism preferences. Here, a few studies have sought to understand the role of subconscious emotional responses and their involvement in destination preference. But the field as a whole treats "emotional responses" with an agnosticism that has long left more mature neuromarketing areas such as advertising, R&D and innovation.

The study of brains and destinations

Participants were recruited in the Copenhagen region and were asked to look at a series of videos, images and other elements, as part of a larger study. During this presentation, they were shown images and videos of different destinations, including San Francisco, New York, Dubai, Singapore, and Hong Kong. During the test, participants' eye movements were tracked with a stationary eye-tracker, and their emotional and cognitive responses were tracked using an EEG brain monitor.

After the test, participants were shown the destination names and asked about the likelihood that they would go there for holidays, study and work. We here noted that the responses for each type of preference were highly correlated, and therefore averaged each score per person as a stated Travel Motivation Score (TMS). This TMS score was then used for subsequent analyses.

The subconscious prefers Dubai and Abu Dhabi

When analyzing the brain responses to each destination, we found that there was a significant difference between how participants responded. While some destinations showed a high positive emotional response (e.g., Dubai and Hong Kong), while other destinations received a more negative response (e.g., New York and Paris).

Chart with emotional responses to travel destinations.
Distribution of emotional responses to the travel destinations tested in the study. The plot shows the average emotional scores for Motivation (frontal asymmetry on the x-axis) and Arousal (y-axis) for each destination. The dotted lines show the known shifts between negative and positive emotions (x-axis) and low vs high arousal (y-axis). Destinations that score high on Motivation and Arousal scores (e.g., Dubai) represent highly positive responses.

Importantly, these responses are to be considered "gut" responses to the destinations, which go into the mix when we make choices of where to travel. More conscious preferences also come into play, and here, we found that on conscious preferences New York and London roamed high (see figure below). This suggested that there was little alignment between subconscious emotional responses and conscious stated preference responses. Indeed, this is no surprise, as we already know that these dual responses often can conflict.

Conscious preference is predicted by cognition

As we had demonstrated that emotional responses could both differentiate between destinations and that these responses were not aligned with stated preference, we wanted to understand if other brain responses could predict stated preferences. To do this, we included both emotional and cognitive responses in an exploratory analysis. Here, we found that lower emotions and higher cognitive load predicted stated preferences (see figure below, B).

Higher cognitive load (and index of working memory demand) responses during the image and video viewing were related to later statements of higher subjective destination preference. In a way, direct cognitive responses predicted stated preferences, while this showed either a negative or no relationship with emotional responses. This further demonstrated how destination preferences may rely on a dual-system response as has been previously shown in other types of intertemporal choice.

Charts showing different emotional responses to travel destinations.
Distribution of emotional and preference scores between different destinations. (A) Distribution of average self-reported travel preferences (TMS) for different destinations, showing that New York ranked highest and Abu Dhabi lowest on group averaged TMS. (B) Regression analysis results from the relationship between TMS and frontal asymmetry, arousal, and cognitive load. Here, the black line represents the linear regression, gray area denotes the 95% confidence interval. (C) Contour plot shows the distribution of arousal (x-axis) and cognitive load (y-axis) scores for each of the travel destinations, using a Gaussian blur function and with intensity values going from low (light colors) to high (full colors), with further subdivision into responses for images (green) and videos (red). As this plot shows, image responses tend to be more variable than video responses.

Finally, we also found that emotional and cognitive responses differed for videos and images. Across all destinations, images produced more variation in emotional and cognitive responses compared to videos. This suggests that images produce a more dynamic emotional and cognitive response to destinations.

First steps lead to more questions

This study is among the first to explore the division between conscious and subconscious destination preference formation and choice. Like all studies, it cannot stand alone, and it leads to a new set of questions that can be explored further, including:

  • How much does subconscious and conscious responses mix in driving the final destination choice?
  • Is an alignment between conscious and subconscious preference the optimal mix, or is there a "winner takes all" process that drives the majority of choices?
  • As seen in other types of consumer behaviors, can subconscious destination preferences in a smaller sample predict changes in market responses?
  • What are the elements that drive optimal subconscious and conscious preference?

Further reading

Subconscious wanderlust

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