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OPINION6 June 2016

The power of the subconscious

Behavioural economics Opinion Public Sector UK

Implicit testing of political messages shows that what voters say is important, and how they actually vote, are often somewhat removed from each other. By Dr Andy Myers.

Hearing one of your carefully crafted key messages parroted back to you is music to the ears of anyone aiming to persuade. Be they a political PR strategist or a consumer brand marketer, receiving your messaging from the lips of your audience is surely cause for a pat on the back, the ultimate reassurance that the television adverts, speech-making, billboards and newspaper articles are all hitting the spot.  But this self-congratulation would, unfortunately, be based on too simplistic a belief that people mean everything that they say.

Neuroscience gives us the tools to probe deeper. Using an implicit testing technique, we tested reaction times in response to political messages around the Scottish referendum and found a disconnect between the explicit – what people were saying – and the implicit – how strongly they believed in what they were saying. People might indicate that they agreed with a statement (explicit), but a slow reaction time demonstrated that there was a less strong emotional conviction (implicit). 

More interesting still, we found a recurring theme in the messages that people claimed to agree with but were subconsciously less convinced by. 

During the Scottish referendum, some of the best known messaging of the ‘Yes’ campaign focused on the most abstract but emotive of political ideas: freedom.  Rhetoric revolved around being free of Westminster and placing the ability to make decisions about Scotland’s future firmly in the hands of the Scottish people. You didn’t need to spend long on social media in the run up to the referendum to see that this message was one often repeated by supporters of the campaign for independence, and it formed the cornerstone of much of the rhetoric used by ‘Yes’ politicians.

However, these messages about freedom and breaking with the status quo didn’t have as much traction as we might have expected in the tests we carried out. People agreed in principal, but subconsciously they were less convinced. That’s not to say they didn’t agree at all, but rather that implicit testing added vital nuance to the picture provided by explicit responses. 

By contrast, messages which focused on security – in many ways the polar opposite of freedom – resonated more powerfully. These included statements on how independence would mean a better future for Scottish children, a more stable economy, and better care for the elderly. What implicit testing reveals here is the subconscious mind, which is in many ways very predictable. 

As humans we naturally react negatively to risk or uncertainty and gravitate towards security and predictability. In the example of the Scottish referendum, however much many Scots may have wanted to believe that independence and change was something to aspire to and get behind, their subconscious minds just were less convinced.

It could be that we see a similar pattern of thought and conviction developing around the upcoming EU referendum: similar issues of power and freedom are at play within debates on Brexit, and it would be reasonable to think that voters may once again be attracted to messages of security and stability and not so convinced by promises of freedom. Equally, the differing dynamics mean this pattern may not prevail within the context of Britain’s relationship with the EU.

So why does this matter? It matters because a huge proportion of our decision making is subconscious. At that crucial moment, with the pencil hovering between two boxes on the ballot paper, our deepest fears and insecurities rise to the surface.  It’s why voting against the status quo is almost always the hardest sell, and messages we didn’t truly believe but parroted back because we wanted to believe them ultimately don’t count for much.

There is a lesson here not only for politicians, but for brands and marketers as well.  The voters politicians need to persuade are also the consumers brands need to reach. Examining what people say about you isn’t enough – dig a little deeper and you may find they didn’t mean it after all.

Dr Andy Myers is research director at consumer neuroscience consultancy Walnut Unlimited


3 years ago

My team's started testing implicit biases using a new facial-coding platform ( -- Works great!

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3 years ago

Very interesting read. However, without describing the implicit test, it is hard to judge what exactly the reaction times could have meant. We ( also find a disconnect in peoples explicitly expressed opinions (e.g. towards refugees) and their actual reaction time on associating the word "terrorist" with the word "refugee". This can be measured with an Implicit association Test (AIT) or semantic priming paradigm. Thus I wonder how exactly you measured it. All the best, JM

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