The Latest Neuromarketing Insights

Unconscious Cues and Their Surprising Effect on Behavior

Relevant topics Archive, Conversion

  • Neuromarketing Principle:
    Normative cues, as small as three little dots, can unconsciously influence people’s behavior when taking into account what aspect of the decision-making process underlying their behavior is affected by the cue.
  • Application:
    The usage of normative cues is an inexpensive, easy to implement method, which can be used in many different contexts to influence socially desired behavior.
  • Influencing behavior through advertisements, both consciously and unconsciously, but especially the latter, has given neuromarketing a bad reputation. Take James Vicary’s famous subliminal messaging experiment from the 1950s as an example. Vicary claimed that subliminal projections telling ten thousands of people to Drink Coca-Cola and to Eat Popcorn during a movie caused a 18 % sales increase for Coca Cola and 58 % sales increase for popcorn. 


    Less known is the fact that Vicary never actually provided any explanations for his results, which made it impossible to reproduce the effect. There even is evidence that the whole experiment actually never took place; Vicary’s results are considered a hoax. Still, ever since people seem worried that advertisers could control their behavior through subtle, unconscious cues.

    The Upside of Unconscious Cues


    A new field experiment by Krupka & Croson (2016) however supports the theory of unconscious influencing. They conducted research on the effect of unconscious cues on people’s donation behavior for a public library. And indeed their experiment suggests that the amount of money donated can be positively influenced by an unconscious cue, consisting of three dots. Depending on the arrangement of these dots they can be interpreted as a face and triggers unconscious feelings of being observed by others.


    What’s new is that the research leverages the two-stage decision process associated with donation behavior: People first decide whether to make a donation or not and only then decide how much to donate. The conscious and unconscious cues can serve as decision-making input, but their effect on the process operates through different channels.

    The unconscious cue in the experiment significantly affects donation behavior by enhancing the intensity of the behavior. This means that norm cues don’t uniformly affect the decision-making process, but can have a differential effect on those who are already inclined to engage in a particular behavior. That’s why it is crucial to analyze the context of desired behavior and take into account what aspect of the decision-making process is affected by the cue.

    Take Home Points

    The results of this study imply an economically sizable effect of normative cues when considered which aspect of the two-stage decision process is affected by the cue. Therefore the usage of normative cues is an effective influencing method with a considerable impact on behavior and has three major advantages: It is inexpensive, easy to implement and can be used in many different contexts. 

  • Unconscious Cues and Their Surprising Effect on Behavior
  • Reference:

    Krupka, E. L., & Croson, R. T. (2016). The Differential Impact of Social Norms Cues on Charitable Contributions. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.


    Further Reading

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