Is implicit research the future?

We humans don't always do what we say. And we don't always say what we do. This is not due to unwillingness, but can logically be explained by means of psychology. An overwhelming 95% of the choices we make each day take place in our subconscious.1. If we consciously processed all this information, it would take so much of us that we would be completely burned out by noon. A smart solution for our brains! There's only one problem. As a result, in some cases our behaviour can be better predicted on the basis of the subconscious than on the basis of questionnaires.2.

More and more scientists agree that we should no longer ignore the subconscious. Implicit research makes it possible to uncover unconscious associations. But what does that mean for survey research? Does implicit research make questionnaires superfluous?

Automatic pilot vs. rational thinker

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman discovered that there are two systems in the brain that together ensure that we can make decisions.3. System 1 is our autopilot. This system works very quickly, emotionally, impulsively and unconsciously. It allows you to cycle, watch TV, or find your way home without thinking about it. System 2 only comes into action when there is a need for active thinking. For example, if you are reading a tricky article, need to solve arithmetic, or need to find a location you have never been to before.

implicit investigation

When If you fill out a questionnaire, system 2 is active. You have to think carefully about the correct answer and write it down in an understandable way. The unconscious system 1 shall not be taken into account for this purpose. And that could be trouble. worries. You run the risk of missing out on some of the information when you only focus on system 2.

Implicit examination

The information that is processed in system 1 cannot be retrieved by means of of a questionnaire. After all, this system works unconsciously. But that means fortunately not that the subconscious is a black box ...stays.

Methods have been developed in psychology to retrieve the unconsciously processed information. One of these is the Implicit Association Test (IAT).4. This test was developed to measure the strength of (unconscious) associations in memory. Some associations are so strong that they are also experienced consciously. When I say pepper, you say...?

Right Yeah. Salt.

But not all associations are conscious. Think, for example, of unconscious prejudices. In 2019, there will be few more people who will proclaim that women are not suitable for a career. Yet, unconsciously, there is still often the prejudice that women are more suitable for caring for the family, and men are more suitable for working. Although people are not aware of any harm, this does contribute to the fact that there are still many more men in top positions than women. Are you wondering if this prejudice lives in your subconscious as well? Then click Here to go to Harvard's online IAT.  

Implicit association test in cultural research

It can also be valuable within organisations to identify implicit associations. Think for example of cultural research. It is difficult to put into words how a company's culture is experienced. Sometimes it just feels good. Or not. This feeling is caused by the emotional system 1. In order to make this tangible, implicit research is needed.

During an implicit association test an employee receives several cultural features. He or she must do so as soon as possible by means of of a button to indicate whether this characteristic suits the organisation. On the basis of the reaction time, the strength of the association is measured. The following applies here: how the faster the reaction, the stronger the association. This is because system 1 is a is much faster than system 2. When a feature is inseparable connected with the organizational culture, system 1 can press the button automatically start up in no time at all. Isn't the association like that? Of course? Then system 2 comes into action to rationally determine whether the characteristic fits or doesn't fit the organisation. When you come to the conclusion that this is the case, more time has elapsed than if System 1 had been speaking. One so less strong association.

Are unnecessary questionnaires?

No, it's not. Implicit research methods are very valuable for finding out emotional information that is not easy to express consciously. But this does not mean that in all cases the way to go is. For example, if you're talking about Employee Satisfaction Surveyapplying an implicit association test is not the best choice. It is about concrete matters that you have to think about before you can give an answer. Questions such as the correctness of the salary are too complex to be answered on autopilot. Considerations must be made. Does your salary match the work you do? Does it match your colleagues'? Is it in line with the market? For these questions system 2 has to work. A questionnaire is therefore the right method to deal with themes such as these.

It The most important thing to think about when choosing a research method is that it matches the question you want to answer. Is there a question of a "feeling issue" or decisions taken on an impulsive basis? Then choose for implicit research. Is this an issue that has been rationally considered? and in which considerations must be made? Then there are explicit methods a better idea.


  1. Zaltman G. (2003). How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market. Harvard Business School Publishing. Boston, MA 02163.
  2. Keatley, D., Clarke, D. D., & Hagger, M. S. (2013). Investigating the predictive validity of implicit and explicit measures of motivation in problem-solving behavioural tasksBritish Journal of Social Psychology52(3), 510-524.
  3. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
  4. Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: the implicit association test. Journal of personality and social psychology74(6), 1464.

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