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Implicit Association Testing in Marketing Research

Market researchers are currently embracing research methods that explore the subconscious depths of the customer’s mind. Consumers have only limited access to their own thoughts and preferences. Traditional research gathers nothing more than a sliver of all available market insights. Methods such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT), Affective Priming Task (APT) and the Go/no-go Association Test (GNAT) allow you to go deeper by measuring the strength of mental associations.

Many questions in marketing boil down to the simple matter of how strong two thoughts are connected in the mind. ‘How strongly is our brand associated with quality X?’ ‘Which type of packaging fits our brand best?’ ‘What impact will an advertising campaign have on the perception of our brand?’

Cognitive and social psychology offer several profound research methods that are able to measure the associative strength between two thought concepts. These reaction-time methods all stem from the cognitive psychological principle that our brains react faster to thoughts that are more strongly linked. Reaction-time methods don’t require elaborate brain imaging equipment, but measure thought processes indirectly through reaction times at a computer task.

Below, I list the three most renowned scientific methods that measure implicit associations:

  • Implicit Association Test (IAT)
  • Affective Priming Task (APT)
  • Go/No-go Test (GNAT)

Each method comes with its own particular strengths and weaknesses. This blog gives you a deeper understanding of when each research method is suitable for your market research endeavors.

1. Implicit Association Test (IAT)

As the most researched and validated implicit research method, the Implicit Association Test is the tool of choice for market researchers. The test asks participants to press two buttons in order to group words and/or images in categories. For instance, positive words and your brand are assigned to the left button and negative words and another baseline brand are assigned to the right button:

Left Button Right Button
-    Positive Words (‘happiness’)
-    Your Brand (e.g., name, logo)
-    Negative Words (‘pain’)
-    Baseline brand

In the subsequent block of trials, the sorting rules are switched. In this example, your brand would be paired with negative words and the other brand with positive words:

Left Button Right Button
-    Positive Words
-    Baseline Brand
-    Negative Words
-    Your brand

Because the brain requires more time to act upon incongruent thoughts, the associative strength can be calculated as the reaction time difference between both blocks. Of course, the order of blocks is randomized among participants in order to control for potential learning effects. The entire validated IAT consists of 7 blocks and also involves a single-target category as well as training blocks.

Implicit Association Test (IAT) marketing pros:

  • The most validated implicit association measure
  • Highest predictive power on behavior
  • Best internal consistency

Implicit Association Test (IAT) marketing cons :

  • Another baseline brand is required as a comparison to your brand

2. Affective Priming Task (APT)

Like many tests that measure the strength of implicit association, the Affective Priming Task requires participants to sort stimuli. However, the APT is characterized by its use of the priming procedure – that is: the target stimulus is preceded by flashing a word or image for a brief moment, typically between 100 and 300 ms. This is called supraliminal priming: a duration long enough for people to be aware of the prime, but not aware of its influence on them.

Trials typically look like this:

Prime with brand logo > positive word ‘happiness’ > press button to sort

Prime with neutral image > positive word ‘happiness’ > press button to sort

The prime influences reaction time. When prime and target word are congruent (e.g., both your brand and the target word are positive in the mind of the participant), people tend to react faster than during incongruent trials (i.e., your brand incongruently precedes a negative word).

After various blocks, often totaling over 200 trials, you can calculate the reaction times for all different prime-target combinations. Associative strength is indicated by reaction differences.

Affective Priming Task (APT) pros:

  • Doesn’t require baseline/comparison brands

Affective Priming Task (APT) cons:

  • The test requires a relatively high number of trials to reach reliability
  • Requires greater experimental control (because of priming)

3. Go/no-go Association Test (GNAT)

The Go/no-go Association Test is unique in that it doesn’t ask participants to press one of two buttons in order to sort stimuli. A sorting rule states for which stimuli people have to press a button (go) and for which ones they press nothing (no-go).

For example, in the first block, participants are asked to press the button either for positive words (‘happiness’) and your brand. They leave the button idle in the case of negative words (‘sorrow’) and an optionally other brand. This reverses in the next block: they are asked to press the button for negative words and your brand.

Different from other methods mentioned in this blog, the GNAT doesn’t calculate associative strength through reaction time differences, but through the amount of errors versus correct responses. When someone performs better during the brand+positive round than during the brand+negative, this indicates a positive association.

Go/no-go Association Test (GNAT) marketing pros:

  • Doesn’t require baseline/comparison brands
  • GNAT appears to be a more natural measure for products that are bought out of impulse

Go/no-go Association Test (GNAT) marketing pros:

  • Somewhat lower internal consistency than IAT

Which method to choose?

In most cases, IAT is the preferred method to measure implicit associations. Although it requires the inclusion of a neutral or competing brand to serve as a baseline yardstick, it offers the highest degree of validity and predictive power. When the research question doesn’t allow for an extra brand to be included, APT and GNAT offer adequate scientifically sound alternatives.

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We never seize to be amazed by the scope and possibilities that implicit marketing research brings to the table. It's a true game-changer.

When you're interested, we'd love to meet and chat about how your brand may benefit.