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Your body knows…

Imagine, that on the desk in front of you, you have four piles of cards. A, B, C and D. Each pile contains cards which will either reward you (you win a sum of money) or punish you (you lose a sum of money). You are given £2,000 of play money to start with, and told that you need to turn 100 cards over, taking them from any of the piles in any order. The aim is to be in profit by the end of the 100 cards.

Now, if you’ve read my blogs before, or you’ve heard me speak, you will know that this is likely to be a psychology experiment. And it is! The original experiment was conducted at the University of Iowa by Bechara and colleagues (including renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio) back in 1994. So, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, the piles of cards are not all the same. Two of the piles are ‘bad’ – that is, overall they will cost the participant money. The other two are ‘good’ – that is, overall they will pay out to the participant. Of course, the participant does not know which is which!

So, off you go. Start turning the cards over and see how you get on…

Periodically the participants in the experiment were stopped and asked how they thought it was going. This gave the researchers a chance to see whether the participants were starting to notice any patterns or not. On average the subjects took between 40 and 50 cards to work out which were the ‘good’ piles.

The experiment gets significantly more interesting when we add in a different dimension. The subjects were all wired up with galvanic skin response (GSR) sensors which measure the conductivity of their skin. This means it picks up early signs of stress as increased skin conductivity is one of the first signs. So, at what point do you think the subjects showed this reaction? If it took them between 40 and 50 cards to report which are the bad piles, at what point would they have changed physiologically?

The answer is about 10. Yes, at that early stage, they presented a stress response when their hands hovered over either of the ‘bad’ piles. They may still have selected cards from there, and when asked by the experimenter, they reported nothing. And yet their body already knew…

This is why neuroscience and the measurement of physiological responses offer such a great opportunity. Through utilising these techniques, we can detect differences and measure responses which subjects themselves are not (yet) aware of.

So, the next time you are commissioning market research, just make sure you are measuring the right things!