The limbic system, the cognitive mind and the user illusion that misleads

“The consciousness of a consumer is like a government spokesperson who has to announce decisions they a) did not participate in and b) whose true decision-making reasons are not accessible to them.”

This is a paraphrase of a quote from the American neuro-philosopher Daniel Dennett.

What it tells us, in brief, is that it is pointless to ask consumers what they want and why. Further, it is irrational to base strategies on insights gained from the consumer’s conscious mind.

Up to 95 per cent of human behaviour happens subconsciously. As humans, we can’t really explain why we do the things we do, even if we think we can. Brain research calls this the “user illusion”.

If you go back to the above quote, the key is to talk to the government directly, not the government spokesperson. Let’s explore this analogy a little further – who is the ‘government’ when it comes to the consumer?

The limbic system

The government is not the cognitive mind. The cognitive mind, or neocortex, is the newest part of the human brain and corresponds with analytical thought and language.

But the true government is actually the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system is a collective term for brain structures that are involved in processing emotions. It is also responsible for all human behaviour, all decision-making, and has no capacity for language.

On top of that, the limbic system processes information 200 times faster than the cognitive brain!

In other words, when we communicate all the features, facts and figures of a brand or product, it doesn’t impact on behaviour, because the cognitive system doesn’t control behaviour. It just rationalises the decisions we have taken long before we became aware of them, in hindsight.

What this means in summary is that decisions are taken quickly, subconsciously and the integration and rise of neuromarketing into common practices is evidence that businesses increasingly adapt a new view to overcome the user illusion.

Overcoming the user illusion

Research conducted by examining patients with brain injuries revealed that emotions were not disruptions in the decision-making processes. Quite the contrary: Without emotions, decision-making was impaired. Patients whose limbic systems were malfunctioning due to injury consistently took the wrong decisions and lost money in card games.


As the German neuromarketing expert Dr Hans-Georg Haeusel describes in his award winning book Emotional Boosting: “Today we know that ultimately our entire brain is more or less emotional. The frontal areas of the brain more so, the posterior cerebrum and the cerebellum to a lesser extent”.

So in order to understand and impact on consumer decision-making, marketers need to understand the limbic system of the brain, otherwise the illusion of robust evidence is highly likely to mislead.

Anastasia Lloyd Wallis is head of RDG consumer insights , which provides retailers and brands with the missing link between understanding the real drivers of consumer behaviours and informing the strategic branding and operational implications at the point of sale.



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