The article Non-Conscious Influences on Consumer Choice was written by Gavan J. Fitzsimons, J. Wesley Hutchinson, Patti Williams, Joseph W. Alba, Tanya L. Chartrand, Joel Huber, Frank R. Kardes, Geeta Menon, Priya Raghubir, J. Edward Russo, Baba Shiv, and Nader T. Tavassoli. The research explores the degree to which non-conscious influences affect consumer choice, arguing that these non-conscious influences have a greater impact than many researchers believe. The areas covered in the article include attention and perception, goal activation and pursuit, learning and memory, attitudes and preferences, affect and non-conscious process, neuroscience and the unconscious, and non-conscious process in choice. Below is a summary of key points raised in the report.

1. Attention and Perception

  • The report indicates that attention and perception can affect nonconscious processing.
  • The authors agree that conscious factors do affect how a person focuses attention on decisions. However, they indicate However, they indicate that long-term memory can affect the preconscious analysis of information with perception being a preparatory process that ‘‘looks’’ for features to ‘‘support’’ expectations. This theory was supported by a study Anthony G. Greenwald, University of Washington in 1992 and Anthony Marcel in 1993. A thorough search of PubMed, Science Direct, and ResearchGate was unable to locate a version of the Marcel article without a paywall.
  • It is currently being debated whether conditioning can occur without at least some level of awareness by the subject. Citing research by Andy Field, University of London (2000), Stijn M. J. van Osselaer, University of Chicago and Chris Janiszewski, University of Florida (2001), it was concluded that “a perceiver’s goals and motivations may indeed moderate this process. Low-effort learning may be merely associative, whereas high-effort motivated learning may be forward-looking and expectancy based.”
  • The authors recognized that perception of visual cues “do not require high-order cognitive processing.” In terms of spatial judgment, prominent visual cues can “strongly influence many decisions ranging from route choice to package choice.” According to research by Robert E. Krider, Priya Raghubir, and Aradhna Krishna (1999, 2001), “the use of visual cues may be hard-wired, inasmuch as the effect is not eliminated by efforts to motivate or de-bias the perceiver. Indeed, increases in attention to the stimuli, whether through contextual presentation formats, experimental instructions, or individual differences, exacerbates the bias—suggesting that the bias is automatic.”

2. Goal Activation and Pursuit

  • The traditional view of goals and goal pursuit is that individual set a goal, develop a strategy for reaching those goals, engage in activity that leads toward the goal, and evaluate the progress. However, this process does not always include deliberate goal-driven behavior. According to a study by Tanya Chartrand and John A. Bargh (2002), goal-driven behavior often occurs outside of awareness, intent, and control. In fact, environments can unconsciously activate goals that have been associated with them in the past and drive behavior without conscious intervention.
  • Other studies by Tanya Chartrand and John A. Bargh were cited to support this theory including the 2001 article Mystery Moods and Perplexing Performance and the 1996 article Automatic Activation of Impression Formation and Memorization Goals. The studies found that the “environment automatically (i.e., without conscious awareness) activates associated goals and motives, that individuals pursue goals they are not aware of having, and that individuals succeed and fail at nonconsciously-pursued goals, and this has downstream consequences for mood, self-enhancement, and performance.”

3. Learning and Memory

  • The authors suggest that the ease with which an individual is able to retrieve and access memories and the sufficiency or diagnosticity of that input to make judgments can influence decision-making. Once retrievability has been used to make a judgment, it is often difficult to change the bias created.
  • The response-latency analysis used for measuring automatic processes in judgment and choice can be utilized to “measure judgment strength, measure automatic judgment activation, and to distinguish between ‘‘real’’ previously-formed judgments stored in memory versus ‘‘artificial’’ measurement-induced or constructed judgments.” According to a study by Russell Fazio, David M. Sanbonmatsu, Martha C. Powell, and Frank R. Kardes in 1986, “strong attitudes are highly accessible from memory, can be retrieved relatively quickly, and are also activated automatically upon mere exposure to the attitude object. Automatic activation can be investigated using an evaluative priming paradigm.”
  • Often called ‘‘implicit,’’ ‘‘unconscious,’’ or ‘‘incidental’’ learning, evidence over the last 25 years has shown that learning can occur without any awareness that it is happening. Studies like those by Jacoby and Brooks (1984) and Wattenmaker (1991) showed that people exposed to incidental learning had a high-level of recall and performance, though not perfect. Neither of these articles is available to the public without a paywall. The authors agree, however, that there are multiple components to learning and that, in general, most people are unaware of “both past influences on current performance and the consequences of current stimuli and decisions on future performance.”

4. Attitudes and Preferences

  • Studies by Edward Russo, Victoria Husted Medvec, and Margaret G. Meloy (1998), Edward Russo, Margaret Meloy, and Jeffrey Wilkes (2000), and Kurt A. Carlson and Edward Russo (2001) show that when an alternative emerges as a leader in the choice process, people tend to see new information with a bias toward the favored choice. The studies show that this “phenomenon” is true with consumer choices, professional decisions, and mock trials. Additionally, “there seems to be little or no recognition of this bias as it occurs.”
  • The authors define metacognition as the level of awareness a consumer has on the source, cause, and sometimes existence of their knowledge, attitudes, and preferences. When a consumer is merely responding to stimuli or processes, their metacognition is generally low since these occur below a level of consciousness. However, this does not account for metacognitive error. For example, a consumer may misidentify the cause or source of their cognitive decision. For instance, a consumer may “confuse the true nature of a product experience with a subsequent ad-induced description of it.” According to a study by Joseph Alba and Wesley Hutchinson, consumers are also unaware of the influence of familiarity on decision-making, as well as conditioning and genetics.

5. Affect and Non-Conscious Processes

  • The authors identify the three types of affects as evaluations, moods, and emotions. Evaluations are simple reactions to stimuli. Moods are generalized feelings or states that are mild and may last for a period of time. Emotions are more intense feelings or states. Nonconscious processing is prevalent in each of these affects.
  • There are several theories on the affect of evaluation. A study by S.T. Fiske, theorized that “responses to stimuli can be a direct, automatic consequence of the act of categorization. When the category is accessed, so too is the related affect which is then transferred automatically to the stimulus.” Studies by Robert Zajonc and Russell Fazio indicate strong attitudes can speed up decision-making and even “the mere perception of the attitude object is often sufficient to automatically activate the attitude.”
  • Research has also identified several mood effects. Mood congruent memory occurs when a person in a positive mood recalls positive memories. Mood dependent memory occurs when “activation of an emotion at the time of encoding later aids in the retrieval of those items when the same emotion is reinstated.” Affect as information concerns the impact mood has on judgments, including happiness. When mood affects are not apparent, they most often “occur in an automatic, non-conscious fashion.”
  • There is debate among researchers concerning the impact of emotion on non-conscious decision-making. Some theorize that, while emotional decision-making is usually rapid and automatic, emotion itself must be conscious to be felt. The authors argue that emotional disorders often manifest in unconscious ways. They suggest that research by Gottlib and McCann (1984), Bargh and Total (1997), and Niedenthal (1990) support their argument. For example, “depressed subjects exhibit automatic processing of depression-related concepts and link such concepts automatically with their self-concepts. Similarly, emotion can serve as a perceptual cue that focuses attention on stimuli that are consistent with their current emotional states.”

6. Neuroscience and the Unconscious

  • The authors cited studies by Weiskrantz (2000) and Anthony Marcel (1998) supporting increasing evidence of the existence of unconscious mental functioning. These studies focused on research involving patients suffering from a condition called blindsight. They revealed that “despite being completely unaware of objects placed in their ‘blind’ hemifields, the patients are able to guess at beyond chance levels the presence of stimuli, the location of stimuli in space, the orientation of lines, the direction of movement of a spot of light, and the color of light. The tests have even extended to semantic biasing by words presented in the blind hemifield.

7. Non-Conscious Processes in Choice

  • As choice is often dependent on reference, the authors suggest that study and research on the impact of nonconscious factors on choice is important. Nonconscious factors can also distort choices. In addition, this distortion can happen automatically and can increase in strength when person is asked to defend their choice. In fact, based on a study by Itamar Simonson in 1989, “had the bias been conscious, it would have been expected to moderate under the high processing condition.”
  • Studies have also shown that subliminal primes can also impact consumer choice unconsciously. A 2001 study by Winkielman, Berridge and Wilbarger showed that people were influenced my subliminal messaging to consume a particular beverage. A similar study by Strahan, Spencer and Zanna (2001) found the same results. “Interestingly, in both papers the impact on behavior was observed despite the fact that participants were unaware both that they were exposed to the facial expressions or thirst-related words and that they had unconscious affective reactions to the subliminal.”


  • The authors concluded that there is sufficient growing evidence to show that non-conscious influences can impact consumer choices. Specifically, evidence shows that consumers frequently make decisions based off of unperceived stimuli and “nonconscious downstream effects.”

Recent Supporting Studies

Recent studies regarding the role of conscious and unconscious influences on consumer behavior include Conceptualizing Consciousness in Consumer Research (2016), Do Mind and Body Agree? (2017), and Exploring the Differences Between Conscious and Unconscious Goal Pursuit (2016). Each of these studies agree that unconscious factors play a large role in why consumers choose one product over another. However, they warn that researchers and marketers would be remiss in focusing on an either-or approach as both conscious and unconscious influences are significant in decision-making. In addition, they agree that very little is truly known about the interactions of the conscious and unconscious mind and much more study is needed in order to gain a full understanding of these processes.

Conceptualizing Consciousness in Consumer Research

  • This article was written by Lawrence E. Williams, an associate professor of marketing at the Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado Boulder, and T. Andrew Poehlman, an assistant professor of marketing at the College of Business, Clemson University. It was published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2016.
  • Willams and Poehlman discuss the role of both conscious awareness and unconscious influences on behavior. Specifically, the authors argue that more study needs to be done to define consciousness and the impact of unconscious influences on conscious behavior.
  • In terms of consumer behavior, Willams and Poehlman believe that it is imperative that brands consider unconscious consumer considerations in order to develop “strategies to overcome deep-seated biases and prepotent tendencies that are more unconscious in nature.” They argue that understanding how consumers behave should involve study of both conscious and unconscious factors. Adopting an either-or approach may “limit our ability and willingness to uncover the true mechanisms at work, which are likely composed of both conscious and unconscious components. Bringing unconscious processes to the fore facilitates researchers’ efforts in determining the degree to which both unconscious and conscious processes interactively shape behavior.”

Do mind and body agree? Unconscious versus conscious arousal in product attitude formation

  • This article was written by Debora Bettiga, Lucio Lamberti, and Giuliano Noci from the Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering, Politecnico di Milano. It was published in the Journal of Business Research in 2017.
  • The research presented by Bettiga, Lamberti, and Noci show that consumer behavior is impacted by both conscious and unconscious emotional reactions that often drive “different attitudinal responses.”
  • The study involved the evaluation of 160 subjects measuring unconscious arousal through electrodermal activity (EDA) and conscious arousal through a self-reported scale. The EDA assessed the “autonomic changes in the electrical properties of the skin. EDA, above measuring arousal in the instant in which the individual feels it, distinguishes among the baseline emotions, states or moods (the tonic level) and the emotions induced by the stimulus (the phasic level).” The self-reported scale was developed by Mehrabian and Russell (1974). “The items used, listed in random order, were “excited-calm”, “stimulated-relaxed”, “aroused-unaroused”, “sluggish-frenzied”, “dulljittery” and “sleepy-wide awake”. The authors concluded that a strong unconscious arousal or emotional response to a product can cause a greater variability in the consumers’ attitude toward the product.

Exploring the Differences Between Conscious and Unconscious Goal Pursuit

  • This article was written by Juliano Laran, Professor of Marketing, University of Miami, Chris Janiszewski, the Russell Berrie Eminent Scholar Chair and Professor of Marketing, Warrington College of Business Administration, University of Florida, and Anthony Salerno, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Carl H. Lindner College of Business, University of Cincinnati. It was published in the Journal of Marketing Research in 2016.
  • The study assessed the impact of both the conscious and unconscious goal system on consumer choices. It concluded that “the unconscious goal system does seem to be smart. It is capable of finding alternatives associated with a goal, inhibiting the selection of alternatives that are not associated with the goal, and quickly making a decision that supports goal pursuit. It also faces challenges because it is not efficient in differentiating alternatives of generally high utility given the goal.” Therefore, marketers should consider both conscious and unconscious decision influences when developing brand strategies.
Glenn is the Lead Operations Research Analyst at The Digital Momentum with experience in research, statistical data analysis and interview techniques. A holder of degree in Economics. A true specialist in quantitative and qualitative research.


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