How many times have you successfully tested a concept, which rated high on purchase intent and high on all of the other “game-changing” metrics, only to see it fail in the real world? Of the numerous times that I have seen this happen in my career the usual response is to blame execution of the concept.  Although this could account for much of the high score low performance paradox, it is my belief that much of the problem actually lies in our irrationality as humans. Specifically how habit, consciously or subconsciously, drives much of our behavior.

The Gym Membership/Obesity Paradox

There is a regular phenomenon worldwide that occurs around beginning of January…New Year’s Resolutions. An individual selects things about his/her life that they would like to change and creates a goal to go about changing it. A popular goal in the US revolves around getting back into shape and/or losing weight. Starting out with the best of intentions, one might begin by involving/telling their significant other, friends, and family about their plan to make a change, shopping for workout gear and new running shoes or signing up for a gym membership. As anyone who regularly works out at a gym can tell you, there are many more people at the gym in January than in February. As you can see from the Google search behavior below, Americans will predictably become very interested in searching for gym memberships around the same time of year and appear to be just over all more interested in gym membership overall.

“Gym Membership”

One would think that if people were really so obviously interested in changing their behavior to lose weight and get into shape that obesity rates would drop during the same time period 2006-2011—right?

Once again, as you can see from the maps of the percent of the obese in the US (state by state) instead of decrease in obesity there has been a stark increase (as represented by the increasingly orange and red colored states).

This example shows that there is a dramatic disconnect from consumer intent to change behavior to actual behavior change.

The Problem May Lay In Our Basal Ganglia

Researcher Ann Graybiel of MIT’s McGovern Institute found a strong resilience of the habitat pathways of the brain located in the basal ganglia.

MIT researchers used laboratory rats in a maze to study what happens when the brain forms a habit. Rats learned to associate the location of a sound, at left in diagram, with the location of a food reward. The researchers then changed the environment by removing the reward, in effect breaking the habit. When the reward was restored, however, the neural pathways created by the habit immediately reformed within the brains of the rats.

-“Brain researchers explain why old habits die hard”, Cathryn M. Delude; MIT News

Are Neuroscience Methodologies The Answer?

As Researchers, how do we uncover ideas that lead to lasting change? To be honest, I do not have a silver bullet response—that being said, I think that the answer may be found through the judicious use of neuroscience methodologies. Overtime, testing concepts with these newer more piercing methodologies against a normative database to identify the brain’s response to “game-changing” ideas may be the answer.

How are you measuring the affect of habit? Are you measuring it? Should we not be worrying about it?

Kyle Nel is manager, customer insights – food and small formats – at Walmart.