Why understanding subconscious behaviour is the key to driving change in 2021 and beyond

By Nicole Harris, Research Manager, TRUE Global Intelligence

‘Tis the season! Nope, not Christmas (although I’m sure Michael Bublé is defrosting as I type) – November is Measurement Month. And like everything in the whirlwind of 2020, this year’s Measurement Month should take us all back to the drawing board of what really matters in the work that we do. AMEC’s Barcelona Principles 3.0, presented earlier this year, reiterated the importance of measuring not only PR outputs, but holistic outcomes and behavioural change – and this has only been strengthened by the shake-up of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement and the U.S. Election. As consumers’ priorities continue to shift over the coming months and emotional drivers move even further to the forefront of behaviour, the key to powering successful campaigns will lie in uncovering, and reacting to, the unspoken truths of the subconscious. 

35,000 decisions

The average individual makes upwards of 35,000 decisions every day, so the brain is forced to prioritise which to consciously mull over, and which can be pushed to the back and set to autopilot. Understanding an audience’s mindset is the lifeblood of comms planning, and it’s the instinctual and subconscious decisions, as discussed in Daniel Kahneman’s seminal ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, that comprise up to 95% of the decisions that consumers make. As such it is imperative that, as comms experts, we consider not only the stated behaviours of our audiences but the psychological activity driving daily routines and decisions.

Taking shortcuts

Over the years, the human brain builds a set of heuristics – or mental shortcuts – to help make quick, snappy choices based on past experiences, social reasoning and environmental impacts. These shortcuts allow us to speed through automatic decisions as we go about our day but mean those subconscious choices are prone to biases and errors. As many as 174 cognitive biases are impacting subconscious decision-making, with some of the most common including:

  • Social proof: We copy what we see others do, or what we are told that others do.
  • Overconfidence: We think we’re more capable than we really are, and if we end up being wrong, we turn to confirmation bias to justify our actions because it’s easier than admitting we were wrong.
  • Choice overload: We panic if given too many options to choose from.
  • Ambiguity effect: We’re put off when we’re unsure of the likelihood of a positive outcome and are more likely to go with the safe choice.


So how do we measure behaviours that consumers don’t even know they’re undertaking?

  1. Consider observational techniques to uncover the gaps between how consumers say they’re behaving, and how they’re actually behaving. It’s simply human nature for individuals to overestimate themselves, and to place a higher emphasis on a topic when asked outright about it than they would in a real-life situation. Rather than assuming reported behaviours are accurate, compare attitude-driven survey results to observational data to track both where and why discrepancies exist.
  2. Focus on uncovering the motives behind decisions. While individuals may not be able to explain why they made a specific decision, they will often speak to the issues and priorities that matter to them – and this can give invaluable insight into the emotional drivers of subconscious choices.

No matter the brand, sector or market, driving behavioural change is the ultimate communications goal, and it’s by examining subconscious decisions that we can get to the root of why our audiences are truly behaving in the way that they are – even if they don’t know it themselves.

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