Malcolm Gladwell (image credit: Little Brown & Company)

(This post follows up on, and expands the discussion of, the June 26th post in this space — “How Cool is This?  Employing Neuroscience to Make Exhibits More Engaging, More Eye-Catching” — of how neuroscience is increasingly studied and applied to strengthen brands, pitch ideas, and create exhibits.)

Willwork, Inc. Exhibit & Event Services is a national leader in exhibition services and event project management.   

Our client list includes winning and successful companies that range in size from the world’s largest multinationals with tens of thousands of employees, to small enterprises of only a few employees.  Every client receives the same uncompromising Willwork commitment to excellence.

Willwork dares say that we help companies make good impressions and broadcast and strengthen their brand.  We help companies tell their stories.  We help companies engage with consumers … and the public at large.

Willwork understands that human nature and the brutally competitive character of business makes urgent the need for companies to always show a good face, always demonstrate efficiently, and always be on message.  

There is that famous (and so true) axiom: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Indeed, scientific and expert-reviewed studies tell us that within the time elapse of a few tenths of a second, a person being pitched and marketed and sold to has made consequential judgements about the person doing the marketing and pitching.

Decisions made this fast are fueled and are the stuff, mostly, of emotion and instinct, not logical and drawn-out contemplation and review.  

And then consider — and this statistic further emphasizes the urgency of initial impression — that daily the average consumer faces, confronts, and is exposed to, 5,000 advertisements.  

Yes, breaking through … right away … to the interests and likes and emotions of the consumer is the holy grail of advertising and marketing-communications.  

(image credit: Little, Btown & Company)

Malcolm Gladwell, the top-selling author, big-idea guy, and high-in-demand corporate speaker, wrote a book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005, Little, Brown and Company).

Blink is about quick judgements and quick determinations, fast decisions … and the psychology and neuroscience behind them.    

Blink is about the element of decision-making called adaptive unconscious, a term created in 2002 by the social psychologist Daniel Wegner.

Wegner, who passed away from ALS in 2013 at the age of 65, taught at Trinity University, the University of Virginia, and Harvard University.  A considerable area of his work and scholarship dealt with and proposed that it is often an “illusion” that our decisions and actions are the result of conscious thinking — and that they are actually directed by the unconscious.

Adaptive unconscious and conscious are two strategies people use to make decisions and, as Gladwell terms it, “make sense of the situation.”   

Conscious-strategy decision making is we ‘think what we’ve learned, and eventually we come up with an answer.” Conscious decision making takes time.  Conscious decision making is logical.  

Adaptive-unconscious decision making is completed as fast as … well … a blink.  

Blink is a treatise on how the adaptive unconscious often better serves us than does the conscious.

“ …  the study of [adaptive unconscious] decision making is one of the most important new fields in psychology,” writes Gladwell.  

Consider this excerpt from the introduction section of Blink:

This new notion of the adaptive unconscious is thought of … as a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings …. As the psychologist Timothy D. Wilson writes in his book Strangers to Ourselves: “The mind  operates more efficiently by relegating a good-deal of high-level, sophisticated  thinking to the unconscious, just as a modern jetliner is able to fly on automatic pilot with little or no input from the human ‘conscious’ pilot. The adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner.”

…. The psychologist Nalini Ambady once gave students three ten-second videotapes of a teacher — with the sound turned off — and found they had no difficulty at all coming up with a rating of the teacher’s effectiveness.  Then  Ambady cut the clips back to five seconds, and the ratings were the same.  They were remarkably consistent even when she showed the students just two seconds of the videotape.  Then Ambady compared those snap judgments of teacher effectiveness with evaluations of those same professors made by their students after a full semester of classes, and she found that they were essentially the same.  A person watching a silent two-second video clip of a teacher he or she has never met will reach conclusions about how good that teacher is that are very similar to those  of a student who has sat in the teacher’s class for an entire semester.  That’s the  power of our adaptive unconscious.  

Blink focuses on adaptive unconscious thinking, yet it also pays heed and analyzes conscious thought — the more deliberative and time-consuming process — and how conscious thought helps us make the right choices … and how it sometimes fails us.

Now, having presented and said all this about Blink, it must also be noted that while Malcolm Gladwell is brilliant and among the best critical thinkers and storytellers of our time but he does have a penchant to simplify and, based on his thinking and writing, declare broad-sweeping laws that do not hold up under scrutiny and analysis.   

(image credit:

To put things another way, and here is the advice for advertisers and marketers, don’t assume that what Gladwell – provided certain conditions are present – foretells will happen, will happen.

Willwork does submit, though – and we do this without reservation – that it is a winning strategy for companies to tie into the unconscious and seek to appeal to deep-held emotion and impulse and instinct.  

It is all good and a smart investment of time to study and learn about the adaptive unconscious.  

On February 21, 2016, published in the New York Times, was a story by Benedict Carey, the newspaper’s science and medical writer.  The focus of the article was the pioneering research report on the unconscious mind and reasoning which had been recently written and released by researchers at the University of Amsterdam.

In the story, “The Unconscious Mind:  A Great Decision Maker”, Carey shared that, “The unconscious brain has a far greater capacity for information than conscious working memory, the authors write, and it may be less susceptible to certain biases.”

It would seem a given that there is a vast and deep reservoir and nexus of research and material on the adaptive unconscious that advises marketers and advertisers on how to make the right impression right away.  

Well, not exactly.  But the reservoir is filling fast, for sure.   Again, as Malcolm Gladwell declared, the study of the adaptive unconscious is “one of the most important new fields in psychology.”

Some Thinking About Emotion — and the Adaptive Unconscious

There is that sales maxim which has been around for years; it tells us that emotion drives buying decisions while logic justifies buying decisions.  

Adaptive-conscious strategy is far more of an emotional animal than is conscious strategy.   Adaptive-conscious and emotion are kin.

Brilliant and reflective minds, since ancient times, have postulated and figured what constitutes emotion — and yet it will be in the future, maybe, when we definitively define and get our arms around the concept and nature of emotion.   

We dare say that emotion is a synthesis of chemical and memory and electrical impulse and neurological hardwiring that does its work in the time it takes to … to … blink.  Emotion is a marrying of the ancestral and instinctual shared by all humanity, and the highly personal and individual continuously updated.

That being said, that much like the sphere of adaptive unconscious, there is a whole lot of space and ocean of what we don’t know about emotion.

Daryl Travis, CEO of Brandtrust, a branding research and strategy firm based in Chicago, wrote a smart and thought-generating commentary on the power and advantages available to companies to strengthen their brands through tapping into … appealing to …. adaptive-conscious strategy and emotion.

The commentary, “Brand Blink: Understanding the Mind to get to the Heart of Buying Decisions”, was published in Marketing Today, an online magazine that provides “articles on strategies and tactics, and results of studies relevant to marketers.”

Travis discusses the brain and images and emotion:

…. The brain is elegantly designed to store whole concepts within an image.  We store memories as images because they are more meaningful and easier to quickly and automatically. Emotions are largely responsible for creating these memories and are the key to unlocking the meaning within.

It is critical for marketers to understand the role of emotions in human decision making and behavior. Raised in Western culture, we are well indoctrinated in the forces of logic and reason, but we’ve lost sight of the essential role emotions play in determining human behavior. In fact, all human behavior is driven by emotional input derived from these stored visualizations …

Indeed, from a seller and marketer standpoint, it is often desirable … in a manner of speaking … to let emotions get the better of us.  

It is desirable to study the role and influence of visualization and images in forming and establishing emotions.   The visual, an image, can almost instantaneously make a powerful impact on a consumer — a powerful impact that is enduring.

Cercone Brown Company is a distinguished and award-winning public relations and creative services agency with offices in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles.  Cercone Brown understands the power of the unconscious.   It understands that in striving  to appeal to and reach the unconscious, deep consideration must be given to precise and singular elements (e,g, color, sound, images, one word) that can immediately influence consumer behavior.

Consider the opening paragraph of a post, titled, “The Psychology of Marketing,” published at the Cerone Brown blog:

For some people, certain words, colors, or pictures can evoke very unique responses, while others produce no reaction at all. With the fields of psychology and neuroscience continuing to expand and explore the brain, we as marketing professionals can benefit from even a simple glimpse at how these processes can be advantageous in our branding.  An expert in the world of marketing or advertising knows that the smallest detail can make or break a company’s success, from the hue of color in the logo to the word choice in a slogan.

Further along in the post, declared is that, “When in the role of a consumer, the person is not a rational being. Instead, they are overcome with both conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions.”

Yes, “overcome with conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions.”

Please click here to be taken to the complete Cercone Brown Company post.


Fascinating is the realm of the adaptive unconscious.  Intriguing are the extraordinary opportunities that are available to those groups, and those individuals, who are able to fashion and transmit the right messages, stories, and appeals that connect to and engage the adaptive unconscious.  

Coming soon in this space will be a post in which we will share and discuss how some organizations, and some people, are selling and brand-building not only through knowing and communicating with the adaptive unconscious — but also in moderating and countering negatives that may have resulted from that “blink” of a first impression.