Half a second—that’s it. Just slightly longer than an eye blink. When an event occurs in less than half a second, the unconscious mind is in charge, processing millions of sensory inputs and responding seamlessly and automatically. But if the event lasts longer than half a second, the conscious mind gets involved, sometimes sorting things out, often messing things up. How we perceive reality is largely a matter of this imperceptible timing.
A wife walks out of the bedroom wearing a new dress and awaits her husband’s reaction. An instantaneous smile communicates authentic appreciation; a half-second delay makes her skeptical of any compliment that comes out of his mouth.
A 12-year old launches a new racing game on his smart phone, and senses a slight delay when he tilts the phone to navigate his car around a hairpin curve. After three ‘unfair’ crashes he quits the game and never launches it again.
A novice high jumper continually uses incorrect technique during practice, despite repeated instruction from her coach on how to properly position her hips and arms as she flies over the bar. However, after her coach employs an audible ‘clicker’ to instantly signal proper technique mid-flight, the student is able to correct her jump form in a single half-hour session.
Over millions of years, the slow, deliberate executive mind evolved on top of the hyper-quick and automatic habitual mind. This executive mind brought us a new sense of conscious self-awareness and, with it, a skewed understanding of our world. Our executive mind believes it is in control of our actions and decisions, yet the majority of these behaviors are simply rubber-stamped processes originating from the habitual mind. The conscious mind is simply unaware of how much unconscious thought is being performed underneath the surface—and how much control the habitual mind really has.
Imagine yourself clutching a bat and guarding home plate, standing 60.5 feet away from Craig Kimbrel, the terrifying fireball closer for the Atlanta Braves. Kimbrel, for his part, has to accurately throw a baseball in the strike zone, a small area defined by the 17-inch wide white rubber plate and the vertical space between your knees and your armpits. But he hurls his fastball at speeds approaching 100 mph, and covers the distance from the pitcher’s mound to batter’s box in just over 4/10ths of a second. Hesitate but a moment to consider the location, spin, and speed of the ball and your swing will arrive woefully late. Conscious thought is too slow for baseball. Professional baseball players are able to consistently and successfully hit the baseball because they leave their conscious minds in the dugout. Whereas the conscious mind is not capable of handling the speeds necessary to combat Kimbrel’s stuff, their unconscious minds can be trained to unwind a swing in a mere fraction of a second.
While we marvel at the impressiveness of unconscious feats like hitting a hundred mile per hour fastball, we fail to appreciate the everyday instances where our habitual minds perform similar exploits. From selecting a single item off shelves filled with thousands of choices (whilst supervising a toddler or two and talking with your sister on your mobile), to rapidly mastering the user interface on a new electronic device, to typing our thoughts into an e-mail at seventy-five words per minute, our habitual mind guides us through series after series of complex behaviors that make up our everyday lives. But the more complex the world becomes, the more the conscious mind is overwhelmed, and the more we rely on our unconscious mind’s ability to automatically adapt to the complexity.
When we interact with our customers’ conscious minds, we often create more confusion than clarity. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell recounts an experiment where novices are able to rank order, by taste, the quality of different jelly brands just as well as expert tasters. But when these same novices are asked to describe the jellies before ranking them (an action that activates the conscious mind), the novices are just as likely to rank the worst jellies as best. This is exactly what happens when we ask customers how they like their meal, their flight, or their service. When we consciously consider our experiences, we alter them. “Umm, now that you mention it, this hamburger wasn’t quite the right temperature, and it may be time to change the French fry oil.”
Which is why it all comes back to that half a second. Feedback that is immediate and processed unconsciously powerfully shapes our future behavior. Counter-intuitively, much of what we consciously process, which shapes our attitudes and intentions, has little impact on what we do in the future. In our quest for customer insights, we often focus on what is easily obtained instead of what really matters.