Why Market Researchers Should Apply Psychological Theories of Thinking

consumer research.jpgThere’s been a lot of coverage in the popular press in recent years about how thinking comprises two different modes — one mode that is very conscious and slow, and another one that occurs quickly, without conscious attention (Kahneman, 2011). The idea of “two modes of thinking” is not really a new idea,[1] but it may actually be of critical importance for market researchers.

Why? Because if there are two modes of thinking, which one are consumers using when they participate in market research? And which ones are they using when they shop and purchase? And does it vary by category? If these modes really do affect how people think, market researchers who pay attention to them will be able to generate even more powerful insights into consumer behavior. 

Systematic & Heuristic Processing

The heuristic-systematic model (Chaiken & Ledgerwood, 2012) is one that we find useful for understanding consumers. This theory describes two ways that humans process information. The first way is called systematic processing, which involves a person trying to fully understand the available information and coming to a specific belief based on that thinking. For example, a person who decides that she wants to buy tires and who researches the various brands of tires that are available for her vehicle, reads reviews, and then talks with a salesperson about the best tires for her driving habits is engaging in systematic processing. 

The second type of thinking is called heuristic processing, which doesn’t involve the same degree of effortful thinking and is somewhat automatic. This thinking relies on heuristics about the world that have been formed from prior experience. For example, the person who is told that he needs new tires by his mechanic and who purchases a brand that his mechanic recommends is using a heuristic such as: Mechanics are experts and experts know best. Heuristic thinking is very common and examples of this type of thinking include beliefs such as “Well-known brands provide good products/services,” or “Higher priced items are generally worth more.” These heuristics allow people to form judgements quickly based on small amounts of information with little critical thinking.  

The two types of thinking work together and get used at different times to make judgements (Chaiken & Ledgerwood, 2012). Heuristic thinking tends to occur when people are short on time, are already strongly invested in a certain viewpoint, or when people are confident that a heuristic will lead to an accurate perception. In contrast, systematic thinking is likely to occur if people have the time and interest in thinking about an issue and don’t feel confident enough with a decision based on available heuristics. For example, if a person isn’t sure that a mechanic is providing the best recommendation, he may decide to do more research on tires that are suitable for his vehicle and may then engage in systematic thinking about this purchase.

Applications to Market Research

Although there is a great deal of academic research evidence for this theory, we haven’t seen many applications of it in the market-research world. However, the implications for market research are significant. When people think about brands, products, and services, when do they engage in systematic vs. heuristic processing? And if they engage in heuristic processing, which heuristics do they use and when?     

We have found in our research that consumers are in fact using heuristic thinking in certain situations. If, for instance, they have a low level of interest in a category, or find the available information difficult to evaluate, or have a plethora of choices — in these circumstances they will typically use heuristic thinking. For example, automotive services are not highly interesting for many consumers, and many find it difficult to evaluate whether a particular auto care company does good work. Furthermore, in many areas there’s an abundance of providers who are conveniently located. What’s the average consumer to do? We found that when selecting a location to service their automobile for the first time, many consumers rely on heuristics such as: Family/friends use this provider so it must be good or companies that have been around a long time will probably do good work, or well-known, national brands are likely to be reputable. Once we know when consumers use heuristics and which ones they use, we can better understand how purchasing decisions are made and help our clients to make more efficient use of resources to communicate with  and sell to  potential and current customers.

The bigger issue in market research, however, is that so much of research may actually be encouraging respondents to engage in a type of thinking that is not generally occurring when they’re actually shopping and purchasing. Lengthy surveys or in-depth focus group discussions about how consumers think about products/services and brands may generate lots of systematic thinking by consumers because researchers are requiring them to engage in this mode of processing. But is that what consumers do naturally? Our ethnographic research with consumers suggests that in actual purchasing situations, consumers rely heavily on heuristic thinking about retailers, brands, and products/services. The secret to understanding their behavior will be to determine what heuristics they use, when they use them, and the impact of this type of thinking.

[1] These two modes of thinking have been described as “reflective” and “impulsive” (Strack & Deutsch, 2004), “central” and “peripheral” (Petty & Cacciopo, 2011), and “systematic” and “heuristic” (Chaiken, 1980, 1987),


Chaiken, S. (1980) Heuristic versus systematic processing and the use of source versus message cues in                    persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 752-766.

Chaiken, S. (1987) The heuristic model of persuasion. In M.P. Zanna, J. M. Olson and C.P.  Herman (eds), Social        Influence: The Ontario Symposium, 5, 3-39. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Chaiken, S. and Ledgerwood, A. (2012) A theory of heuristic and systematic information processing. Handbook          of theories of social psychology, Vol. 1.  In P.A.M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgens). Sage:        
       Thousand Oaks, CA

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Petty, R. and Cacioppo, J. (2011) Communication and persuasion: central and peripheral routes to attitude                  change. New York: Springer-Verlag

Strack, F. and Deutsch, R. (2004) Reflective and impulsive determinants of human behavior. Personality and                Social Psychology Review, 8, 220-247.

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Anne_Beall.jpgAnne Beall is CEO of Beall Research, Inc. She specializes in strategic market research and previously was Director of Market Research for The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). She conducts both qualitative and quantitative market research and specializes in conducting large-scale, complex studies for Fortune 500 companies across many industries. She has published the following books: Strategic Market Research: A Guide to Conducting Research That Drives Businesses (2nd Edition) and Reading the Hidden Communications Around You: A Guide To Reading Body Language in the Workplace. Anne received her M.S, M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees in Social Psychology from Yale University. If you want to learn more about Anne or about Beall Research, access: www.Beallrt.com.

Topics: Market Research Strategy Marketing