The internet is changing our brains: consumer truth is even more elusive than ever

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We’re all guilty. We let Netflix coax us into one (or five) more episode of House of Cards. Agreeing with Instagram that, yes, it is essential to look at that picture of someone else’s feet because it’s their first post in a whole week. Feeling utterly thrilled that more than 50 people liked that hilarious memory Facebook got you to share.

And whilst we’re aware that we are being lured into an endless loop of compulsive behaviour and instant gratification, the addiction is too strong for many of us to break. You may struggle to understand your powerlessness, but there is a scientific explanation: our brains are being re-wired. Neuroplasticity – the process through which the brain alters its behaviour based on new experiences – is being accelerated.

According to recent research behind the M&S ‘Spend It Well’ campaign, autopilot decision shortcuts are encroaching into all aspects of our lives – often with negative impact on our mental health. Technology and social media were found to be a significant contributor.

Others have observed further personality-altering side effects of online addiction. We’re losing the ability to reflect, says Teddy Wayne. Why daydream when you could be watching a TED talk? Why ever be bored when you could scroll even further down your endless Facebook feed? When constant distraction stops our minds wandering, we lose our capacity for introspection, contemplation and observation.

“It seems counterintuitive to say that we are entering an unreflective cultural phase, as our time tends to be criticized for its self-absorption. But our solipsism is frequently given outward expression rather than inward exploration”

This outward expression is all about speed and brevity: 140 characters, a snapshot, a status update. Thoughts that might once have developed, changed course, deepened – are let loose instantly so we can feel part of ‘the conversation’. The speed of social media is fundamentally at odds with deliberative thought.

This has obvious implications for market research. Capturing real behaviours and attitudes is critical: but the social media age is making it making this harder to pin down. As behaviour becomes increasingly ‘automated’, can we expect our respondents to be able to tell us the truth – even if they wanted to? Is the ‘will say / can’t say’ category growing?

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We need to work even harder to access these difficult-to-reach corners of the consumer mind. In both qual and quant we strive to reveal both ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’ thinking.

Encouraging periods of reflection before a group – including exercises that challenge automated thinking – are effective in revealing attitudes and motivations that consumers are largely oblivious to (System 2). In quant, we challenge people to think harder about their responses. This self-revelation has the happy side-effect of getting respondents more engaged in the research – it’s always fascinating to discover stuff you didn’t know about yourself.

More than ever we must understand consumer’s System 1 thinking – their instant, instinctive, more emotionally-driven selves. In both quant and qual our focus is on expanding those methods that encourage respondents to reveal more by them thinking less.

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