Updated on 10.15.10

Subconscious Connections

Trent Hamm

Open up one of your favorite magazines. Turn to a full page ad for a product – any product. Look at it carefully for a minute. What do you see?

Fire up your television. Fast forward through the commercials (I know many of you can). Think about the flickering images that still made it through. Now, watch the program for one minute and see how many products you can identify in the minute of the show you’re watching.

When was the last time you heard something positive about any politician? Positive campaign ads barely exist. Is it at all surprising that people think everyone in Washington is a dysfunctional crook when almost everything we hear about them is a negative ad or a fear-based “news” report?

Every time you glimpse a product placement or advertisement, even if your attention isn’t fully on it, you subconsciously gain a bit of emotional connection with the item.

Now, these subconscious connections are weak, to be sure, but they do exist. Walk down the laundry detergent aisle at your grocery store and notice the different brands. You’ll have different reactions to different brands, whether or not you’ve ever paid attention to their ads or not.

It’s these subconscious connections that make unplanned shopping dangerous. When we shop without planning, we’re no longer shopping based on external facts. We’re shopping based on internal responses, and all of those subconscious connections play a role.

Conscious connections, built through rational thought, are much stronger. I see an ad for a company or product I don’t like and it doesn’t help their image. I see an ad for a product I do like and it makes no difference, either. Negative ads against politicians I support make me not like the other candidate.

Most importantly, conscious connections can be informed through facts, unbiased reviews, and advance planning. A well-prepared grocery list, for example, is full of conscious connections – knowledge of what items you actually need, knowledge of what items are on sale in the store flyer, knowledge of which items are the “best buys” in Consumer Reports, and so on.

The more we rely on fact-based conscious connections and the less we rely on subconscious connections, the better. We make smarter choices that provide a much greater “bang for the buck” when we shop. We end up with products we actually have a use for. Better yet, we support products that do things the right way, however we define that (lowest prices, ethical business, and so on), and our dollars directly influence the marketplace.

How can you ensure you’re using more conscious connections and fewer subsconscious connections when you shop?

Use the ten second rule Whenever you consider buying an item impulsively, hold it in your hands and think about it consciously for ten seconds. Why are you buying this?

Use the thirty day rule Whenever you’re considering a major purchase (more than $20, say), wait thirty days before buying it. During that period, do additional research about the item and ask yourself whether you really have a use for this item.

Use shopping lists Make a shopping list before you enter any store. Prepare that list at home based on the things you actually need and the things you’ve figured out that you want. Do some research on that list, too, utilizing the internet and other sources to figure out what the best values and the top quality items are.

Think about your mistakes Don’t beat yourself up when you make a purchasing error. Instead, think about why you did that. What was the reason you made this poor choice? Then, focus on eradicating the reasons for that mistake so that the mistake doesn’t occur again.

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  1. I think what you’re getting at here really boils down to a psychology concepts about “schemas”. I’d post a link but I don’t want my comment in moderation purgatory.

    Basically, people already have a belief system and when something doesn’t fit, we ignore it but when something DOES fit, it tends to amplify our beliefs. It’s interesting and I think relevent to the idea of this article. Check it out!

  2. So true. I caught myself once reaching for a particular brand because I had seen it (in commercials) more than the other brands available, as a result I thought of it as a better product.

  3. PJ says:

    I had a VERY strange and unsettling experience recently. There is a local show in my area where three people each recommend a favorite local restaurant and then everybody goes to each other’s restaurants, and they all give reviews. I had seen a preview of the upcoming show, and there was a woman on it that looked very familiar. Where did I know her from? Did we go to school together? Had we worked together at one time? I had warm feelings for her, I knew that, but I couldn’t place where we’d met. I had to wait several days for the show to come on to find out her name. I was astounded to learn that she was… THE LADY IN THE PINE SOL COMMERCIAL! I didn’t know this woman at all — but I “knew” she was someone I liked and trusted.

    That does it, I’m unplugging the damned TV.

  4. Teresa says:

    I had an interesting experience this afternoon in the mall with a high pressure sales person at a kiosk that sucked in my 15 year old with a hair straightener. I wasn’t opposed to listening to the sales pitch from an objective point of view but was by no means making a $250(!!) purchase on the spur of the moment. I had to stick to my guns and my daughter agreed on that but it turned ugly from the salesperson when we left.

  5. Kathryn says:

    I think this is a great post overall–it all points to being intentional about spending, which is really the only way to get a handle on the habit. I have to disagree with the particulars of your 10-second rule, however. According to Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy, people are 40% more likely to buy an item they’ve touched. So, if you really want to give yourself the best chance of making a rational decision about a purchase, don’t pick the item up. Look at it sitting on the shelf for 10 seconds instead.

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