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Implicit Association Testing (IAT)

Test unconscious perceptions and associations of your target group with the IAT


95 percent of all purchasing decisions are made subconsciously. This is the result of numerous studies in brain research (e.g. Harvard Professor Gerald Zaltman).In most cases, a customer's "gut feeling" decides whether or not to make a purchase. This phenomenon can be observed very often, especially with "low-involvement products" of everyday use. Many prefer Coca-Cola over other soda brands, even though blind taste tests have revealed that its taste is no better, and in some cases worse, than other soda brands.

In an increasingly complex world, automated, non-consciously controlled behaviour serves to simplify (purchasing) decisions. This intuitive behaviour is highly influenced by subconscious associations with products, brands or concepts.

Implicit methods are used within market research to measure these subconscious associations. Unlike the explicit methods often used in conventional surveys, respondents in an implicit test are not granted the opportunity to give conscious, thoughtful answers. Instead, quick and intuitive responses are effectively elicited with the help of time pressure and the measuring of reaction times.

2. What does "implicit" mean in psychology?

In psychology, there are two types of human perception and decision-making processes. Nobel Prize winner and economist Daniel Kahneman explain these in terms of two systems in our brain::

  • System 1:

Encompasses unconscious, intuitive and fast processes. When system 1 controls our behaviour, it is automated without us noticing it. Our brain draws on memories, experiences and rules of thumb. System 1 works extremely fast and with enormous capacity.


  • System 2:

Encompasses conscious, rational processes that take place much more slowly than unconscious ones (e.g. expressed attitudes and explanations of one's behaviour). System 2 is based on values and beliefs. It is mainly used when decisions are made for the first time, have high personal relevance and in a calm and concentrated state.

3. When are implicit methods used?

Typical areas of application for implicit methods include the recording of subconscious associations with, as well as preferences for brands, products, categories or concepts.

Typical questions are:


  • What characteristics and emotions do consumers associate with my brand?
  • Does my new (product) design fit the brand?
  • What associations does a commercial evoke?
  • Which product variants are well or poorly received in the first impression?

The results of implicit tests reveal which patterns and preferences exist subconsciously in the minds of consumers that determine their behaviour.

4. How do implicit association tests work (with Appinio)?

Implicit system 1 comes into play especially when decisions have to be made under time pressure, because the slow system 2 can then no longer work. For this reason, a classic approach to implicit procedures is reaction time measurement.


1. Survey under time pressure

In order to test subconscious associations and preferences under conditions that are as realistic as possible, respondents in implicit tests at Appinio are put under time pressure and asked to answer as quickly and intuitively as possible, so that they are not given the opportunity to consciously think through their answer.


In short, this means:

  • Respondents are shown certain stimuli (such as a brand logo or a short video)
  • They have a few seconds to state whether or not they associate certain characteristics with the stimulus

    This question disappears after a few seconds and the next one is displayed immediately.

2. Results

In the evaluation, attention is paid not only to the extent to which the respondents attribute certain properties to the stimulus but also to how strongly this association is anchored in the participants' subconscious. This is done by measuring the reaction time. A fast response indicates a higher strength of association and thus a deeper anchoring in the subconscious.


In addition to the reaction time, the success rate shows the proportion of those who evaluated the respective stimuli in the given time. The lower the success rate, the greater the probability that the participants had to think about the association, i.e. it is implicitly less strongly associated with the stimulus.

Results are presented simply and intuitively using a score between -100% and +100%. This is calculated by multiplying the difference between positive and negative scores by the success rate.

 Impl Table

5. Pros and Cons of Implicit Association tests


The biggest advantage of implicit methods is the findings that cannot otherwise be derived from an explicit query. An implicit test reveals associations and preferences that would not be captured by an explicit method or would be captured in the wrong way because the target group is often not aware of them themselves.

Since the human brain is not wired to think consciously in such short periods of time, unconscious processes are activated in the brain that makes a rational decision impossible. Respondents are forced to answer intuitively and "automatically". This also results in the following advantages:

  • The unconscious and thus the "gut feeling" becomes measurable
  • The methodology mimics reality especially with low-involvement products of everyday use where decisions are often made intuitively and spontaneously
  • Social desirability, i.e. the urge to appear as a rational, reasonable person, cannot influence respondents
  • The research method is rather playful and is perceived as varied and fun by many respondents




  • Relatively high effort required to create the survey, as the given associations have to be researched elaborately beforehand
  • Due to the short time window, only individual terms or images can be tested implicitly. Other stimuli such as slogans or product benefits cannot be tested in such a manner due to their size

6. Are implicit and explicit methods also combined?

In reality, of course, decisions are very rarely made only unconsciously or only consciously, but always in combination of both. That is why it is advisable to combine explicit and implicit methods in market research as well, in order to get the most meaningful picture possible.
When it comes to new product designs or concepts, for example, it makes sense to ask explicit questions about purchase probability, comprehensibility and drivers as well as barriers after implicitly asking about the impact or initial liking.



7. Conclusion

Implicit tests measure unconscious dimensions, making consumers' gut feelings tangible. Since respondents have to react within seconds, they are forced to answer intuitively and spontaneously and cannot think consciously about their answer. With this foundation, subconscious associations and preferences about brands, concepts or designs emerge that cannot be measured with an explicit, conventional test.

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