What brain do we address as marketers?

Behavioural science has proved years ago that we have “2 brains”. And that it’s more efficient to work with the one we don’t work with yet.


In 2007 two scientists — Brian Wansink and Jeffery Sobal — ran a study on 140 people and established that 99% of day-to-day decisions they made were automatic and subconscious. People did not even notice the very fact of deciding anything.


This research, as well as many others that followed, provided a long-needed proof for the theory behavioral scientists were using for years: most of the decisions we make are not based on reasons, all our actions are heavily biased by the “subconscious/ hidden brain”. In 2011 Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman published "Thinking Fast and Slow" where he coined the term “System 1” describing the same “subconscious brain”.


two brain systems in one head
Two brains in one head


What is System 1?


A classic puzzle that is used to demonstrate how it works:

A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If your answer is 10 cents — your System 1 speaking (correct answer is 5).


In a nutshell, System 1 is a part of our mind that is responsible for fast, automatic, habitual and gut-based decisions. System 1 controls our behavior most part of the day. It is also a system that kicks off when a specific type of behavior moves from the learned one to automatic. System 1 and System 2 (our focused, reasonable, conscious brain) constantly interchange one another and we switch between them based on the context we face. If the context is familiar and we have learned behavior for these situations we operate on System 1. If the circumstances are new — we instantly switch to System 2


Real life examples on System 1 and System 2 functioning

— you are learning to drive a car. Every experience is brand new to you, you’re razor-blade focused — System 1


— you’ve been driving a car for years and following your usual route from your kid’s school to office you don’t even look at the road. You can think of a new assignment or a new marketing campaign for your startup — System 2


— you’ve been driving for years but you’ve ended up in a storm on a mountain road in total darkness. You know the driving drill but the circumstances are so stressful and different from anything you’ve got used to that you are fully focused on the road — switch to System 1



Why do we need two systems in our brain in the first place?

The answer is simple, trivial and a bit scary — that’s because thinking is very energy intensive process. While thinking we burn a lot of energy, and millions of years of evolution taught us as species that energy is precious and it not easily acquired. It may sound weird but things like McDonald’s and energy bars are very recent inventions, they have not been around long enough to change our basic presumptions that have been developing throughout evolution. As species, we still operate on an energy budget.


While thinking we burn a lot of energy, and millions of years of evolution taught us as species that energy is precious and it not easily acquired. As species, we still operate on an energy budget.

The same evolution taught us that it is much more energy efficient to make decisions without too much thinking. On top of all, it’s much safer: you don’t have time to figure anything out when you hear a suspicious noise that reminds you of a lion in the bushes. You run first, and think later (if you’re lucky). If you made the right choice and there was a lion, fast thinking saves your life. If you guessed wrong and there was no lion in the bush – meh, not a big deal, some extra exercise never hurts.


But wait, you can’t always act without thinking! It will end up in a disaster sooner or later. So, our smart brain, shaped by millions of years of evolution, and convinced that it should save as much energy as it can, plus act as fast as it can when acting fast makes sense, came up with these two “systems”. One (System 2), the reasonable, focused, the one that pays attention to every detail and tries to analyze as much data as possible, operates when we find ourselves in reasonably new circumstances. Another one (System 1) takes over as soon as the context becomes familiar and we form habitual behavior. It doesn’t mean that we don’t think when we find ourselves in familiar circumstances. It means that we make choices without realizing that we make choices.


What implications does System 1 and System 2 have on marketing?


— As soon as behavior is shaped it’s very hard to change it because no matter how good your reasons are, how good your copy is, and how compelling your pricing makes customers change their existing MO if favor of your product takes x10 effort than convincing someone who has no shaped behavior.


— Companies who managed to do it successfully either create new niches, markets and jobs-to-be-done, thus escaping this need to change existing behavior. Or use consciously or subconsciously different techniques to address System 1, aka our “hidden brain”.


If you’re interested in the techniques that can be used to address the subconscious brain, sign up for my Hidden Brain Marketing Newsletter.