Language Narrative Visual Perception

Invisible gorillas, erotic dancers, and what lies beyond the visible spectrum.


Most people know about the spectrum of colours that can be seen with the naked eye, and that beyond this visible spectrum of colour, there are things that we cannot see, like infra-red, for example.

In recent years, however, it has become apparent that there are many things that we do not consciously see that can have profound effects on our behaviour. These are things that the unconscious mind sees “under the radar” of consciousness.

In 2004, two researchers from Harvard University, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for the experiment known as “The Invisible Gorilla.”

In this experiment, participants are shown a video, featuring two teams, one wearing white shirts, the other black. The teams are moving around in a circle, passing basketballs to one another. In order to occupy your attention, you are asked to count the number of passes made by the team wearing white.

Halfway through the video, someone wearing a full-body gorilla suit walks slowly to the middle of the screen, pounds their chest, and then walks out of the frame.

If you were to watch the video without being asked to count the passes, you would, of course, see the gorilla. But in tests, when people were asked to concentrate on the passes, about half the people did not see the gorilla at all.

Chabris and Simons call this phenomenon ‘inattentional blindness’. It occurs when you direct your attention like a mental spotlight on the basketball passes, because it is so focused on this activity, it leaves everything else in darkness. In this state, even when you look straight at the gorilla you won’t see it, because it’s simply not what you’re looking for.
That is not to say, however, that at some level your mind hasn’t registered it.

Our brains are physical systems and hence have finite ­resources. Compared to a computer chip, which is capable of processing billions of bits of information every second, our conscious brains (that part of our thinking in which we are aware of thinking) can only process a mere 40 bits of information per second.

Tor Nørretranders
Tor Nørretranders

In the “The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size”, Tor Nørretranders has pointed out that our senses receive about 12 million bits of information every second. Of that 12 million bits of information, 10 million bits come from our eyes, 1 million bits come from our sense of touch, and the rest being delivered from all the other senses—hearing, smell, taste, and spatial sensations.

And, this is the important bit, because our conscious brains can only process at 40 bits per second, the remaining information is processed subconsciously.

That’s a ratio, of something like 99.999 percent subconscious processing, to 0.001 percent actual conscious thinking.

And this information we receive “under the radar” of consciousness would appear to have a powerful effect on behaviour.

According to research conducted by Professors Gavan Fitzsimons and Tanya Chartrand of Duke University, and Gráinne Fitzsimons of the University of Waterloo and published in the Journal of Consumer Research, in April, 2008, when people are subliminally exposed to either an IBM or an Apple logo, those exposed to the Apple logo behave in a more creative fashion than those who had been shown the IBM logo.

Gavan Fitzsimons explains: “Each of us is exposed to thousands of brand images every day, most of which are not related to paid advertising. We assume that incidental brand exposures do not affect us, but our work demonstrates that even fleeting glimpses of logos can affect us quite dramatically.”

To demonstrate the effects of brands on behavior, the researchers selected two household names, with contrasting and clearly defined brand characteristics. They asked the participants to complete what appeared to be a simple visual acuity task, during which either the Apple or IBM logo was flashed so quickly that they were completely unaware they had seen anything.

The participants were asked to then complete a task designed to evaluate how creative they were, by listing as many uses as possible for a brick other than the obvious such as building a wall. And those who were exposed to the Apple logo generated significantly more unexpected, oblique and creative uses for the brick compared with those who had “seen” the IBM logo.

As Gráinne Fitzsimons puts it: “This is the first clear evidence that subliminal brand exposures can cause people to act in very specific ways.”

But perhaps even more dramatic than the discovery that subliminal exposure to brands can affect behaviour, was the research published by a group of evolutionary psychologists from the University of New Mexico, in their 2007 paper “Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus?”

What they discovered, in fact, was that lap dancers earnings vary in direct proportion to the stages of their ovulatory cycles.

So, on average, a lap dancer would earn $335 per evening during estrus, that part of their ovulatory cycle when they are most likely to conceive, $260 per evening during the couple of weeks that form the luteal phase, and only $185 per evening during menstruation. (By contrast, participants using contraceptive pills showed no estrous earnings peak.)

As the researchers describe it in their paper: “All participants in this study worked as lap dancers in Albuquerque “gentlemen’s clubs” circa November 2006 through January 2007. The clubs serve alcohol; they are fairly dark, smoky, and loud (with a DJ playing rock, rap, or pop music). Most club patrons are Anglo or Hispanic men aged 20 to 60, ranging from semiskilled laborers to professionals; they typically start the evening by getting a stack of US$20 bills from the club’s on-site ATM and having a couple of drinks.

The Dancers in these clubs perform topless but by law are required to wear a underwear or a thong of some sort. During the evening, each dancer performs on an elevated central stage to advertise her presence, attractiveness, and availability for lap dances. These dances result in only modest tip earnings (typically $1–5 tips from the men seated closest to the stage, and amounting to just 10% of her total earnings).

The rest of the time, she will walk around the club asking men if they want a “lap dance.” A lap dance typically costs $10 per 3-min song in the main club area or $20 in the more private VIP lounge. Lap dances require informal “tips” rather than having explicit “prices” (to avoid police charges of illegal “solicitation”), but the tipping is vigorously enforced by bouncers. Dancers thus maximize their earnings by providing as many lap dances as possible per shift.

The direct correlation between the tips earned, and the ovulatory status of these women, demonstrates that this information was clearly communicated to their customers through some form of non-verbal communication. And that this is perceived by the subconscious part of the brain that processes 12 million bits of information every second, rather than the conscious part that is chugging along at a mere 40 bits of information per second.

What both the Apple vs. IBM, and the lap dancers research clearly shows, is that in large part, our behaviours, are driven by experiences that we are not consciously aware of.

And, that the vast majority of these experiences are primarily visual.

And that, in a nutshell, is why, the traditional marketing practice of proposition testing doesn’t work.

It’s all a question of bandwidth. Consider this: we have seen that something like 99.999 percent of our perception is subconscious processing, and of that processing capability, 10 million bits out of 12 million bits per second is purely visual.

So proposition testing only speaks to 0.001 percent of the available attention in the group.

In order to get real insights out of any focus group, you need to engage the whole human being, their conscious and subconscious selves, the rational and the emotional, or System A and System B consciousness as Daniel Kahnemann describes it in “Thinking Fast and Slow.

And you need to use visually rich stimulus.

A number of years ago our agency, Chemistry, developed a process that we call “Creative Planning” which does just this. It is based on the belief that consumers cannot relate in any meaningful way to propositions, but do respond to narratives placed in a visually rich context.

We find that using these methods in qualitative research, creates much higher engagement with consumers, providing much better, more profound insights than the use of propositions out of context.

Now “Creative Planning” isn’t perfect, But to be fair, consumers in focus groups are never going to be as engaged to the same degree as the customers of a lap dancing club. Whatever the time of the month.