In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman lays forth a compelling account of human behavior and decision-making. He proposes that our choices are far more influenced by an array of cognitive biases and instinctual impulses than they are by logic and reason. His research has been hailed as groundbreaking. So groundbreaking, in fact, that he won the Nobel Prize in economic science in 2002. It seems we humans don’t base the majority of our decisions on utility nor do we calculate probability very well.  No. Instead, we make many, many decisions in an instant or, as a layman might say, “from the gut.” Our choices are far more emotionally driven as we lean on unconscious and ingrained associations, feelings, and intuition. Kahneman defines this more automatic decision-making as System 1 thinking. The slower and more deliberate mode of decision-making is System 2.

If you are a fan of the Star Trek series, you are likely quite familiar with the characters of Captain Kirk and First Lieutenant Spock. Captain Kirk dives in guided by his emotions and, in contrast to the logical and evaluative Spock, often appears to be quite reckless and wild. Spock, on the other hand, calculates outcome likelihoods and advises action only after a full assessment of all his available data. In comparison to the fiery Kirk, Spock appears cold and insensitive. Kirk is a total System 1 guy. He’s human after all. Spock is System 2 all the way. He’s part Vulcan, a race of intellectual, rational beings devoid of volatile emotion. One of the hallmarks of the show is the tension that arises between the two characters and the resulting conflict (and resolution) that comes from their differences. In many plot lines, we see the pair learning from one another and reaching a more successful outcome when joining forces to integrate the rational mind with spontaneous feeling and gut judgment.

The implications of the System 1 and System 2 approach to decision-making are important in the study of consumer behavior.

Ok, it may not be quite the same as the defense of the Federation against a ruthless band of Romulans, BUT we do have challenges using standard methods of consumer research to get at the more automatic, emotionally-influenced behaviors. Let’s face it. Our standard approaches rely heavily on a System 2, Q&A, evaluative model.

This is particularly key when we want to learn about shopper behavior and in-the-moment decision-making. Habit kicks in and automatic responses take over in many categories. The larger the investment, the bigger the purchase, or the more complex the considerations, System 2 thinking jumps into gear. Think about all the research that might go into the purchase of a new automobile or determining which medical coverage to elect from a list of different options. These two examples likely both rely on System 2 evaluation, comparison and risk/reward assessment. But, what about things like deciding where to go for lunch today or which tomato sauce to buy? When given time to reflect, shoppers will offer justifications for their actions, but are these truly at the core of why they choose Tide over Cheer laundry detergent or why one frozen pizza is preferred over another? As researchers, it is crucial for us to gain insight into the more instinctual and emotional mode of consumer action. In other words, we need to take some lessons from our Starship Enterprise crew members in our work as insights professionals and marketers.

I would encourage you to take a page out of the Star Trek flight plan and set a course to boost your own System 1 skills. Here are a few ways to begin the journey:


Beam Me Up Scotty!


Beaming into the lives of your consumer offers a wealth of contextual understanding that you just can’t get by studying sales data.

Beaming into the lives of your consumer offers a wealth of contextual understanding that you just can’t get by studying sales data.

Teleportation is not just a science fiction concept. Beaming out of your office and beaming into the lives of your consumer offers a wealth of contextual understanding that you just can’t get by studying sales data or, frankly, sitting in a focus group backroom. If System 1 thinking relies heavily on ingrained biases and cultural influences, we need to spend time learning more about these — what are your consumers’ values, beliefs, and lifestyle? What stresses them out? Building this base of knowledge FIRST makes it easier to connect the dots to the motivators of consumer behavior. And, it need not always be an expensive ethnographic effort. Leverage speed dating-style immersion or Lifeology™ game play as a way to build empathy in less time and for less cost.


Warp Speed!


We know shoppers look at products on-shelf for only a few seconds before they make their purchase decisions.

We know shoppers look at products on-shelf for only a few seconds before they make their purchase decisions.

System 2 thought requires time to evaluate, consider, and compare. When we try to get to the more instinctual System 1 thinking, we need to move quickly before logic and reason fully take over. Traditional research methods can employ techniques like timeouts on survey questions or timed concept exposures. We know shoppers look at products on-shelf for only a few seconds before they make their purchase decisions. By designing research methods to be as fast as System 1 decision-making, we get a more realistic view of our consumers.


Remember the Prime Directive

Watching shoppers navigate, browse, consider, and buy in-store and in-aisle can lead to new hypotheses

Watching shoppers navigate, browse, consider, and buy in-store and in-aisle can lead to new hypotheses

Trekkies know that the Federation is prohibited from interfering with the development of alien civilizations. To get into the System 1 mindset of the consumer, spend time in pure observation-mode and don’t interfere. Watching shoppers navigate, browse, consider, and buy in-store and in-aisle can lead to new hypotheses as well as eye-opening insight. In many cases, actions speak louder than words.  Start small with your team and have everyone do just a couple of hours of observation. It can be applied to digital shopping too!  


Read the Captain’s Log


Stardate, TODAY. Why wait to delve more deeply into this fascinating topic? See what the experts are saying and get smart. In addition to Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, there are some terrific books on the subject of decision-making:  

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. The author of The Big Short and Moneyball shares how the unlikely friendship of Kahneman and his research partner, Amos Tversky led to such revolutionary breakthroughs in human decision-making theory.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. A personal favorite. You’ll never look at habit formation (and habit-breaking) in the same way again!

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler. What influences our decisions? It’s those little things, those small nudges that make all the difference.


So, when it comes to decision making, are you more of a Kirk or a Spock? What are your ‘go to’ approaches for gathering System 1 consumer learning? Share in the comments here and follow us on FacebookLinkedInTwitter or Instagram.

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