How do you know what you know? Much of what we do and the decisions that we make are based on knowledge or attitudes that are accessed without conscious effort. Hence, driving a car would be impossible if we continuously needed to think about each step of the process. Experienced doctors are able to make snap decisions by ‘reading’ a patient and their health without going through an explicit mental checklist. It is all part of the process of the automation of perception and reaction that is characteristics of expertise.
in a variety of forms. In one sense, we are all experts regarding the products
we use or consume. Food psychologist EP Koster has often made the point that we
instantly know when a food company has tampered with our favourite marmalade,
even if we are not sure exactly what has changed. Experimentally, too, this was
shown in a study in which very small amounts of tastants (sweet, sour, bitter)
were added to foods (cream cheese, orange juice, yoghurt) that had been sampled
earlier in the day. Asked to compare the new versions with those they had
consumed earlier, the participants were especially sensitive to any negative
change produced by minimal increases in bitterness, even though it is unlikely
that would have been able to articulate what exactly the change was . In other words, they were retrieving
implicit rather than explicit information.
In some cases, information
is encoded implicitly in the first place, and our behavior and preferences can
be shaped by experiences with stimuli that never entered conscious awareness. Thus,
the ingenious study of the German recipients of formula milk to which vanilla
had been added showed that these experiences were influential in determining a
food choice (ketchup with or without a tiny amount of added vanilla) even 30
years later .
research of any kind is aimed at retrieving knowledge that is assumed to be at
the consumer’s fingertips. But what if it isn’t? Social psychologists sometimes
study phenomena in which an ‘honest’ answer can not be assumed. Thus, if asked
questions about our own attitudes to other races, there is enormous internal
pressure to conform to cultural norms, even if we know that the information
won’t get further than the researcher’s computer. We do not like to admit even
to ourselves that we have attitudes that would meet universal disapproval if
researchers sometimes have the same concerns, although this is more motivated
by the fact that ratings of liking for, say, a new product is a poor predictor
of how well that product will actually do in the marketplace. The rather
illogical response is sometimes to blame the consumer: they are obviously stubbornly
not revealing their true attitudes towards the product. One consequence is the
search for “objective” measures of liking such as brain scanning - as though
there was a blind alley between “the brain” and the mouth down which honest
opinions get sent.
One approach to
the problem of retrieving attitudes taken by social psychologists has been the
development of the Implicit Association
Test (IAT). This is based on the assumption, not that people’s responses
are inherently dishonest, but that there may be attitudes that are not
explicitly or consciously available or that are difficult to put into words.
The technique works by exploiting the fact that responses to things that belong
together (words; objects) are faster than when there is a disconnect between
them. So, if I flashed up pairs of words on a screen and asked you to instantly
press a key, your response to “mother + father” would be quicker than to
“mother + sheep”. Now, as the social psychologists do, imagine if I flashed up the
name of another race (you decide which!) plus either of the words ‘dumb’ or
‘smart’. Any difference in reaction times between these two words paired with
the race would reveal attitudes without ever having to ask a question about
As one example,
I previously (Le topic du
jour: Gout qui importe; December, 2012) reported the distinction
between French and American consumers in their attitudes towards food tastiness
and health, the results of an IAT study that compared responses to the terms
“tasty” with “healthy” and “unhealthy”.
The pairings in
the IAT do not need to be words but can also be visual images such as labels, people,
places or events. For instance, the IAT was recently applied to examining the
fit between marketing slogans and their associated products. Pairings of the
words “gentle” and “powerful” with images of the bottles of different brands of
mouthwash showed that consumers had internalized the marketing messages of each
company. Responses to the mouthwash that marketed itself as gentle were fastest
when the bottle image was paired with this label than when paired with
“powerful”; conversely, the word “powerful” produced the faster reactions times
when paired with the bottle of the other brand, again consistent with its
indications that measuring implicit responses is being increasingly recognized
in sensory consumer science. At the recent Pangborn
Symposium in Rio de Janeiro (see: http://www.pangborn2013.com)
several presentations focused on measures of implicit reactions to products,
including the measurement of emotions – currently one of the current hot topics
in sensory/consumers research – using the IAT. Other reported implicit measures
included the measurement of facial responses, although the extent to which
these might be consciously controlled is an important methodological issue.
One potential next step is to include product tasting with the IAT and assess the extent to which the product’s sensory and functional properties is congruent with the product image and concept. The final plenary talk at the 2013 Pangborn discussed the issue of fit between a product’s conceptual profile (essentially the set of associations and emotions that it evokes) and its sensory properties, noting that the degree of alignment of the two equates to whether or not a product ‘fit-to-brand’. The conclusion was that significant mismatch between a product’s conceptual profile and what it actually delivers to the consumer presents a serious risk that the product will fail .
1. Koster, M.A., J. Prescott, and E.P. Koster, Incidental learning and memory for three basic tastes in food. Chem. Senses, 2004. 29(5): p. 441-453.
2. Haller, R., et al., The influence of early experience with vanillin on food preference later in life Chem. Senses, 1999. 24(4): p. 465-467.
3. Parise, C. and C. Spence, Assessing the associations between brand packaging and brand attributes using an indirect performance measure. Food Qual Pref, 2012. 24: p. 17-23.
4. Thomson, D. The application of conceptual profiling in brand, product and packaging development. 10th Pangborn Sensory Science Symposium, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, 11-15th August, 2013.