Do you know those conversations that light up your brain in all sorts of new ways?

That’s what it was like to interview Ana Iorga, consumer neuroscience expert.

Our entire conversations felt like a crash course in how the brain works when it makes decisions. Talking to Ana was not just an opportunity to discover fascinating facts about how our brain shapes our perception of reality, but also a chance to see how these facts work in real-life situations.

Ana’s examples cover a wide range of familiar experiences, explained through a lens that inspires reflection, encourages self-awareness, and makes us more intentional about our actions.

To give you a glimpse into her expertise, here’s an excerpt to the “Ethics and Neuromarketing” book she co-wrote:

“The rationale behind neuromarketing is that human decision-making is not primarily a conscious process. Instead, there’s increasing evidence that the willingness to buy products and services is an emotional process, where the brain uses shortcuts to accelerate the decision-making process. At the intersection of economics, neuroscience, consumer behavior, and cognitive psychology, neuromarketing focuses on which emotions are relevant in human decision-making and uses this knowledge to make marketing more effective.”

Our relationship with brands was just one of the topics we covered, with lots more around making decisions in survival mode, why biases aren’t inherently bad, and how our past experiences equip us for navigating a world running at top speed.

I was reminded how overconfident we all are of our choices when, in fact, peeking behind scenes reveals a very complex – and often messy – process. That’s why it’s good to be a bit skeptical of information from others and especially of our own reactions to it.

“I’m having fun observing myself,” Ana said. By the end of this episode, I hope you’ll feel the same way!

About Ana Iorga:

Dr. Ana Iorga is a consumer neuroscience expert with a deep abiding passion for bringing science to marketing.

With a Ph.D. in Consumer Neuroscience and a double MBA in Marketing and Finance, she has spent over a decade working with businesses as well as academia.

Having founded one of the fastest-growing full-service advertising agencies, Ana has deep expertise in the world of design, communication, branding, and the creation of marketing campaigns for brands across diverse industries such as Consumer Goods, Retail, Finance, and Media. Given her unique academic background, Ana then set out to found Buyer Brain, a consumer neuroscience company that focuses on delivering non-conscious insights that drive deeper customer engagement.

Listen to this episode to learn:

  • How our brain makes decisions and reacts to highly unpredictable environments
  • Which type of processing dominates our decision-making process (subconscious vs conscious)
  • How we make decisions when we’re in survival mode
  • Why our brain perceives intense cognitive effort as pain and what that means for the choice you make
  • How emotions influence our choices
  • The way our decision-making process influences our relationships with brands
  • Why it’s important to look at the gap between what people say and what they do – both in others and in ourselves
  • How a neuroscientist makes decisions knowing all this and more

A few ideas that stuck with me:

  • around 95% of the information processing in our brain happens at the subconscious level
  • at the brain level, the cognitive effort is perceived as pain – the more difficult it is for us to understand something, the more pain we experience
  • when overwhelmed by a new, complex situation we have no reference for, our instinct is to freeze and try to absorb all the information we can to make the best decision possible
  • our inability to immediately understand a situation, an idea, a problem makes us unhappy
  • being in survival mode make sus very risk-averse, which influences how we make important decisions
  • strong, important relationships become even more important when we’re in survival mode, which makes us crave even more assurance from the people or brands involved in these relationships
  • our brain uses biases as shortcuts but we can also consciously use them as warning signs to questions our preconceived notions and reactions
  • the brain’s structure and how it processes information doesn’t change, giving every one of us a chance to better understand it and improve it.

Connect with Ana:

Resources mentioned in the episode:


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Full episode transcript:

Andra Zaharia: So, I’d love to start by unpacking the core elements from this paragraph in “The Ethics in Neuromarketing” research paper you co-authored in 2017 – which I’ll link to, in the show notes. The paragraph reads, “The rationale behind neuromarketing is that human decision-making is not primarily a conscious process. Instead, there’s increasing evidence that the willingness to buy products and services is an emotional process, where the brain uses shortcuts to accelerate the decision-making process. At the intersection of economics, neuroscience, consumer behavior, and cognitive psychology, neuromarketing focuses on which emotions are relevant in human decision-making and uses this knowledge to make marketing more effective.” So, if we look at the bigger picture and go beyond marketing, what would be those emotions that dominate human decision-making?

Ana Iorga: Okay, so, I’ll answer your questions about emotions, but first of all, I want to introduce another concept that is going to help us through our discussion today, and that is related to Kahneman’s framework of conscious and subconscious processing. So, he divided the functional brain into two systems: system one and system two. And he calls system one ‘the subconscious processing’ that is very fast and relies on heuristics and biases; it does not use too much energy and it is the primary state that our brains want us to be in, throughout the day. And I’ll come back to that later. And system two is the ‘brain processing’ when we are paying attention to what is going on around us; we are focused, we use a lot of energy to process the information around us. It’s mainly when we’re learning something new. So, for example, when you learn to ride a bike, you’re in system two because you have to pay attention to how to coordinate your body and when you already learned how to ride a bike, it goes to the subconscious processing, where you don’t have to think about it; you just keep doing it and you are riding the bike.

Ana Iorga: So this framework is very important for us to understand how decision-making happens. And, as I said, there is a lot happening at the subconscious level. So, Zaltman, a professor from Harvard – his theory is that around 95% of the processing happens at the subconscious level. That doesn’t mean that our decisions are non-conscious or subconscious, that we’re not aware of our decisions. That means that we’re not consciously processing what we do throughout the day. And this is a very good thing because if we were to do that, we’d get tired so early in the morning, and would not be able to do anything. And so, I can give you an example for this. So, it’s like, when you wake up in the morning, you rely on past experiences and you know that it is safe for you to get off the bed, to go in the kitchen, to make a coffee – there’s no monster jumping to eat you. Whereas, if you don’t know that and you have to consciously process every step you take, you might not get off the bed until midday.

Ana Iorga: So, the way the brain processes information is also related to the emotions that drive our behavior, and we are wired since kids to pursue the activities that will bring us pleasure, that will bring us a reward, and to just stay away from those activities that would get us hurt or punished. So, this is how my kids learned the concept of hot. It was enough for them to touch a hot pot once and they knew exactly what hot meant. They didn’t touch it the second time. And throughout our lives and our behavior as consumers, employees, spouses, parents, we try to enhance those experiences that bring us pleasure and to stay away from those experiences that make us feel bad. So, this also translates into our experience with a brand. So, whenever a brand creates an unpleasant experience, why would we choose to continue a relationship with that brand?

Ana Iorga: And now, an unpleasant experience? This is very interesting. We do a lot of work in measuring customer effort, and at the brain level, effort is perceived as pain. So, whenever we go through some effort that we have to put into, for example, finding out about our Telekom bill, why was there any mismatch between what we thought we had to pay and the bill, or we need to call the bank to fix our credit cards, anything – anytime we go through this effort, our brain perceives it as pain. So, it’s like if someone was hitting us. We’re not aware of that pain, of course, but there is a red flag, like an alarm in our brains, “This experience is not okay. Why do you keep doing that? So, go away! Move to another company. Just leave all the premises.” So, we, as customers, and companies are not really aware of that, of the huge impact that effort has on our decision-making and on our relationships with brands. And that translates to emotions, actually – to emotions and the pain that we feel.

Andra Zaharia: I find that very interesting! There are a couple of things I would like to unpack here. So, first, our brain’s perception of effort and treating it as pain. Is this one of the factors why people tend to avoid difficult decisions or postpone them, simply because they’re triggered that way? So, what brings a difficult decision, something that we may have not faced in our lives, yet, what brings it to the surface? What makes it surface from the subconscious level, where it’s basically habitual, to bringing it to our awareness in a way that makes us stop and reflect about it? What would be the factors that cause it to surface like this?

Ana Iorga: I’m not so sure I understood your question. So, you’re saying, if we are faced with a difficult decision, how do we process it consciously?

Andra Zaharia: Yes!

Ana Iorga: Okay. So, mainly, whenever we have to make a decision, our brains look back into memory, searching for a similar situation, and searching for the actions that we took and the results. So, the brain is a comparison machine and it goes very, very fast, sifting through all the information that we have, trying to see which situation matches the one that we are in, currently. If it finds a favorable outcome, then pretty much, the behavior is going to be similar to what we did in the past because our brain knows, well, if you did that, and it was safe, do it again; you might be safe. And of course, it takes into account context and some other elements that we have around us. So, this is how the processing happens. This is not conscious. We might remember consciously something that happened in the past, but most of the processing is subconscious and our brain just feeds the conscious level a shortlist saying “Hey, you can do this or that or that and this is what might happen”, so just kind of decide what is the course and what you want to do. This is pretty much how it works.

Andra Zaharia: That’s very helpful because of the context that we live in now, where everyone perceives that change has accelerated a lot, that there is more uncertainty than humans have ever dealt with and complexity and everything is happening at the same time. How much can our past experiences indicate what future success looks like? To sum this up, I found a phrase that stuck with me and it’s actually a book that’s called, “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There”, and I found that very interesting because it caused me to stop and challenge myself and figure out if these past experiences can actually be as helpful as I think they would be, to indicate a potential solution to a problem or a specific choice. So, how do you think that’s maybe changing right now?

Ana Iorga: So if we refer to the current situation with the pandemic and everything that we’re going through, it is very interesting that our brains, especially younger people, we don’t have any similar situation to compare. We’ve never been through such a greater threat, let’s say, we’ve never been through a critical situation like that. So, our brain is really lost in telling us which is the best path. So, for me, since I started working in consumer behavior, I developed this eye to observe things and to analyze them consciously. So, when the whole thing happened also in Romania, I started looking around to see how do people react, how do customers react and what’s going on – so, almost everybody froze, including me. So, we’re all in this frozen state where we’re trying to figure out what to do and it’s normal to a certain level because we’re absorbing information, trying to figure out the best path for each of us. And then, of course, you have people’s risk-averseness coming into play, you have people’s mindset, also, influencing that. So, in order to be able to survive through uncertainty, first of all, you need to be able to put in a lot of effort – cognitive effort.

Ana Iorga: Uncertainty drives cognitive effort, and people are very unhappy with that – this is what also found from our work in doing consumer behavior assessments. Whenever people don’t understand information, they don’t understand the context or the setting, they’re very unhappy. So, that’s the first step: you need to accept that there’s going to be a lot of effort that you need to put into finding the way to go. Then, you have to be willing to adapt very fast. Meaning, what was right in the morning might not be right in the afternoon when you have new information showing you that it’s safe or not safe to go outside or whatever. Then, you have to have a flexible mindset. So, you might change your behavior, you might change your habits, and you have to accept that and be willing to do that. Because if you’re rigid, you might be in trouble. And this, of course, comes to how we’re wired – some of us are more flexible, some of us are more rigid, some of us are okay to navigate through uncertainty, some of us are not. So, for example, being an entrepreneur, navigating through uncertainty every day helps you with this current situation – that’s like a side joke. So, I guess this is how we learn how to get through an uncertain context or environment.

Andra Zaharia: These are very helpful. And I’ve also seen it on myself – the toll that this cognitive effort takes at some point if you don’t give yourself enough breathing room. And again, I’ve been reading about all these things, and I’ve been working with a coach for a long time, but I still found I constantly put in this effort, but it was kind of, let’s say, I didn’t realize the toll that it took on me until a few weeks ago when I started really feeling depleted and very, very tired emotionally and cognitively tired, that I just could not take in any more – and I curved the stimuli that I let into my life a long time ago, and I’m trying to keep them under control. So, I kind of regulate how much news I take in, I’ve deleted my Facebook account for almost three years now. So, I’ve done a lot of work in this but still was very, very difficult, even with training because I feel lucky and privileged to have had access to therapy and coaching and things that help you boost all these abilities and build them, gradually. But it still took quite a toll. And what I’ve seen is that, well, obviously, many people went in survival mode – whether they realize it or not – and decision-making is very difficult. So, making choices in survival mode is very difficult than when we’re in a calm state or in your regular average day-to-day context. What have you found that’s particularly different about how people make decisions when they’re in their survival mode or extreme situations that activate that in-saying that we have to either fight or flight? Well, for some of us, it may be freeze, because that’s the third option as well.

Ana Iorga: Yeah. So, we become very risk-averse when we are in this survival mode, and there is a threat out there and we do not know what the threat is, we don’t know how to react, we become very risk-averse. And our brains are trying to keep us safe, put in a place where at least they can control the environment. So this is one of our brain’s most important roles, to keep us safe and to control the environment. So, this is very funny. I’ll give you an example. My boy is 10, and before the pandemic, every weekend he wanted us to go somewhere – just to a playground or just to go somewhere so he gets out of the house. When the pandemic started, I explained to him that it is dangerous and he would not go to the supermarket, we would not take him anywhere. And he told me, I think last week, he said something like, “I have two voices in my head. One is telling me that I want to go out and have fun and meet my friends and go play. But the other one is telling me that it is dangerous and the risk outweighs the benefit. So, therefore, I listen to the other voice that tells me to stay inside, it is safer.” And I don’t remember his wording exactly, but he said, “I’m not bothering you with all my requests to go out and I’m being a quiet kid.” Something like that. And I looked at him and said, “Yeah, this is exactly what happens in our brains!” I mean, he verbalized it so well! And because of that, we refrained all our desires to do anything that was dangerous – or most of us refrained that because, of course, there are people that are not so risk-averse and they just take any risk. They don’t care. But I’m talking about the majority of the population, let’s say.

Ana Iorga: So we become risk-averse, and everything that is not directly related to the threat or the survival, our brain just ignores it: “This is noise. I’m not going to pay attention to that. I’m just going to process the information that is related to how to wash your hands, get sanitizer, don’t go out, how to order groceries, and stuff like that.” Another important thing is that the relationships that were important or strong, they become more important – and I’m talking about personal relationships and also a relationship with a brand. So, if you’re engaged with a brand, you’re going to get more engaged because that is a safe spot for you. The brain tells you this brand is safe, you can interact with it. So, you continue to do more business with that company, brand, whatever. Whereas, the weak connections are just going to vanish. They’re not important, your brain tells you “Well, you should not spend energy and time in that direction because there’s nothing there.” So you disengage with anything that’s not important. And this is a very important lesson for brands because, if we look around what happened in communication, a lot of brands decided not to say anything. They just hid. I understand that! They didn’t know what to do, there was a lot of risk involved. So, on the one hand, I understand, but on the other hand, if you look at the consumer, he needs that assurance from a brand. And if you don’t provide that, the consumer’s brain is going to say, “Well, this is not important for my survival. It doesn’t help me in this situation, so I’m going to ignore it. And then, when I go back to my habits, I’m not going to include you in my habit because you’re not there anymore.”

Andra Zaharia: That is very interesting! I really particularly like this point and I think it has a lot of weight into how we behave these days, and how we take in information because I think that that’s one of the biggest things that’s exploded in consumption. Information consumption has just skyrocketed, and we can see it in the fact that… Well, internet traffic has increased a lot and it has increased a lot for social media and news apps, and so on and so forth. So, there are all these elements when we’re in the survival mode, just to sum up, especially, our brains kind of function to filter out irrelevant information and weak ties, which I think is very important. And I see many people were triggered to reflect, intentionally or not, but a lot of people kind of went into reflection mode and kind of got clarity around what the important aspects or elements of their lives were and what matters and what doesn’t. There was this general filtration of everything that’s going on in our lives. Plus, this tendency to seek out familiarity. But doesn’t that also trigger our confirmation bias? Which I find is one of the most dangerous biases that we have, especially when we consume information. And for those who don’t know, I just wanted to mention that confirmation bias is the human tendency to seek out information and facts that corroborate and support the arguments and the story we already have built in our heads, that we’re already telling ourselves. How have you seen that maybe influence consumer’s behavior or behavior in general?

Ana Iorga: So, yeah, this is related to the echo chamber – we live in our own bubble. And I just saw the title of an article saying that the first link you get when you Google something, the first news would be one that supports your belief, and then the next link would be one that is weaker but still supports your belief and so on. So, yeah, this is very dangerous because this is how we become radical and this is how we are not open to analyzing new information and new data that comes in. But there are around 175 biases that are at play when we look at people’s behavior. So, we are not aware of them and even if we are aware of them, we might not change, and we are not able to change it – this is how our brain works.

Andra Zaharia: So what can we do about it? It takes a lot of effort. I’ve seen it in myself and in others who’ve been reading about psychology and sociology and every other branch that ties into our behavior. And if you work with a coach, you learn to spot these things and you learn to see how your cognitive distortions modify your behavior and your decisions, so you can you course-correct and figure out a more rational way to behave and to perceive. But how can we live with them in a way that doesn’t affect our lives too much? Because, certainly, we can’t erase them and we definitely can’t learn to have a perfect critical-thinking machine. We’re not able to do that. We’re only human at the end of the day. But how can we live with them?

Ana Iorga: Well, biases are not bad. They’re not inherently bad. I mean, some of them are and some of them aren’t. They’re shortcuts. They’re a way that our brain manages to go through life and still get a good outcome of the decisions that we take. So, if we’re in settings where we don’t understand the information, we don’t really know how to navigate, then relying on biases is going to help us because at least we have a path. On the other hand, biases are bad because we do not put in the effort to analyze the information and we jump to conclusions. And then, depending on the bias – let’s say, if we talk about the ‘women in science’ bias, and we look at someone and we say, “Well, how can she be a scientist? Look at her!” That’s bad because that blocks our willingness to analyze the information and to make a decision based on what we see. I remember, once I was flying with KLM, and when the plane takes off, it’s the captain talking. And there was this lady woman voice saying, “Hi, I’m your captain.” And my first reaction was like, “Oh, my God! She’s a woman! Why?” So I got a bit anxious. Then, I analyzed it immediately. So I was like, “Why am I thinking that? I mean, for sure, she knows how to fly a plane. So that’s not an issue.” I got upset with myself – why did I become anxious? There’s no reason for me to become anxious. But the first reaction was that, like, “Oh, she’s not a guy. Okay.”

Andra Zaharia: They’re very deeply ingrained, aren’t they? Even if we don’t want them, even if we’re educated people who have read a lot, we can still see these knee-jerk reactions that we have. And I think what helps us is to have that afterthought, that kind of process that kicks in and says, “Hey! This is something you should challenge. This is something you should look beyond. Don’t stick with this path.”

Ana Iorga: Exactly! So, it’s very important for us to analyze that. We might not be able to change it. So, the next time, I might react the same, but at least I’m aware, so my brain is going to recall the memory, saying, “Hey, relax! It’s okay. You’ve been through that, so don’t worry.” Or, “Accept it because it’s okay.” And I think that the second action that we need to take and that’s very important is to educate our kids and to educate the people around us to see those biases, and to be aware of them as much as they can. And here, I also have another personal story. I have a boy and a girl. My boy is 10 and when he was younger, I would buy all kinds of tools and toys for him where he would have to build and use his imagination. And then, when my girl was growing, I was trying to buy the same toys for her but what do you find when you go to the store? You find kitchens, you find dolls, makeup. And I was very, very upset. I was in a rage at some point. I was like, why? Of course, there is this bias where women grow and they cook and guys fix things around because this is how they play! And I remember an interesting study where they had these toddlers – they were actually babies; I think six-seven months old. And they dressed them as boys and girls, and they got volunteers to play with them. If the baby was dressed as a girl, the volunteer would play with girl toys; if the baby was dressed as a boy, they would play with boy boys. Actually, they mixed them. So that’s bias and volunteers did not do it on purpose. They just thought that would be the most appropriate toy to play with.

Andra Zaharia: Exactly! There’s a lot that we still need to change. I sometimes feel – and I know how this may sound, let’s say, slightly as a critique to human evolution – we live in such a complex world, but I feel that sometimes our brains or our patterns or behavior has not evolved enough compared to where we want it to be or where we expect it to be or what we expect of ourselves. And this is something that’s very visible throughout all areas of society, but especially how children behave today, and how their brains absorb and process information versus what people are used to, in terms of nurturing them and helping them grow up. And there’s such a big difference. They’re so incredibly smart. They don’t see gender gaps because these are all learned behaviors. And I know it takes a long time for mentalities to change. When I was studying PR and communication, we studied anthropology and everything else and it stuck with me that mentality is changed once every 50 years, if so. And I feel that it has remained the same, in spite of this advanced and general acceleration of everything. What other things are not changing about human behavior and how we make decisions? Because I feel like there’s a lot of talk about change but, at the same time, the decisions that people make for us, let’s say, on a bigger level, are still driven by the same things and that’s why we see patterns in past events that are similar to what we’re going through now. And obviously, this cycle of history is repeating itself endlessly. So, what are those things that don’t change about human behavior that are big influences on our choices?

Ana Iorga: I think the way our brains work does not change. And that’s a good thing because if it changed, you might have mutations and then you don’t know what would come out of those mutations. So, pretty much the role habits play in our decision-making, the role of emotions, or the impact of emotions that plays in our decision making – I think those are two aspects that do not change. Of course, what changes is how we interpret them. Our reactions and our decisions are pretty much context and culture-driven and how we explain those, and how we motivate them, changes from culture to culture. But if we look at the primary reactions or the brain processes, they’re the same. If you think of a mother’s reaction to protect her kids, they’re the same across cultures, but the way she does this and her actions and her behavior might be different from culture to culture. So, this also translates, probably, at a higher level, but not if we talk about politics or administration. I think the decision is different because there are other elements that come into play that are just distorting the way people decide. So, it might not be in the best interest of some groups, it might be in the best interest of other groups. So, that’s a different discussion.

Andra Zaharia: That is true! And I feel maybe that’s why we feel so strongly challenged by some of these things that don’t align with our reality. And around what you said that our brain hasn’t changed, I remember an example – and I haven’t thought about this in over 10 years. When we were at the university, we had this fantastic teacher that taught us communication, and we studied all sorts of things. And one of the things I remember, one of the studies that he quoted is that they found a tribe in the Amazon a bunch of years ago and they showed different emotions, but just people’s eyes and they could recognize each of those emotions and name them just as everyone else on the globe would – and that’s a very universal pattern. And I find that very endearing, I guess, because we’re all able to recognize emotion in each other and we all have these shared patterns, but sometimes, the way we interpret things culturally makes us drift apart. And we see that a lot in social media, we see that a lot in the comment section of [insert any website here].

Ana Iorga: That’s a very interesting point you brought up. And probably your professor was referring to Paul Ekman – he’s the father of facial recognition, the facial coding, let’s say, with the seven emotions. But recently, I read another book that’s called “How Our Emotions Form the Brain” or something that, that challenged everything that I thought and I knew about emotions. A very interesting book, very technical, so it’s not at a layman level – it goes very deep into brain processes. But the argumentation is the following: It’s not mainly the emotions that are global and easily recognizable; it’s the expression that people have on their faces, and based on the concepts that those tribes or the cultures have, based on the concept, people are able to recognize the emotion. And the example that she gives, they also went to tribes. The book is written by a professor, I forgot her name, but I can send you the link. She has Ph.D. students, and they also went to some tribes and did research. And when they showed people the faces, they didn’t tell them any concept, they didn’t tell them this is happiness, this is sadness, this is fear. And the reaction would be people are laughing. They look at someone laughing and say, “People are laughing.” They didn’t say ‘happiness’. They said ‘laugh’ because they didn’t know the concept of happiness. They didn’t have it in their vocabulary, and they didn’t know how to verbalize it. And the point she’s making is that we are teaching our kids concepts since they are young, since they’re babies. So, when a mother talks to the child and she tells the baby, “I am upset because you did that” or “Why are you crying? Are you upset?” The kid hears ‘upset’, you know, being upset and correlates it with crying. Or, “Are you angry? Don’t throw the toy on the floor, I’m getting angry.” So, because we are able to talk and to use a common language that the other person understands, we transfer the concepts, and then they know to recognize the emotion based on the concept that they learned. So she’s saying that it’s not the emotions that are global and we’re able to recognize the emotion. We’re able to recognize the concept that we learned. And if we don’t have the concept, our brain doesn’t know what to do with that.

Andra Zaharia: I find that super interesting, especially because one thing that I’ve found since doing this podcast and since devoting a lot more attention to decision-making, both in my personal life and noticing what goes on around me, is that sometimes, one of the reasons we have to put in a lot more effort to figure out these complex things in our lives is that we lack the vocabulary to do so. We don’t know how to name these things. And when our brain doesn’t have that concept to rely on, it’s very difficult for us to actually figure out what that looks like. I mean, I’m absolutely thrilled at behavioral psychology and every other branch that touches on human behavior, have surfaced a bit into mainstream media because we’re finally learning how to talk about what we feel and what we think and we’re finally giving ourselves this opportunity. But, at the same time, I know you did a lot of research on consumer behavior and how people act when they’re shopping and when they choose what to consume and what to buy. But I wanted to ask you what the difference is – speaking of vocabulary – what the difference is between what they do and what they say because that distance usually reveals all our biases and things that are going on with our subconscious actions or reactions that we have. Could you share a few examples of that?

Ana Iorga: So, since we started doing consumer neuroscience, we saw that there is a gap between what people say and what they think. And that gap comes from, either people are not aware, either they don’t want to say. If you’re researching a topic that’s sensitive people might not want to tell you. Or people, oftentimes, they resort to the first answer that comes to their mind just to move on. So, if we have a focus group or you ask people, “Why would you buy this product? Why do you like it?” They just give you the first answer that comes to their mind, because why would they put in more effort to introspect themselves and to see why do they really like the product or not.

Ana Iorga: So, I remember a project that we did, where we looked at employee engagement, and we measured engagement on focus and energy – so, two dimensions of people’s involvement. And we had declarative surveys, so we asked people some questions to see how focused they were and how engaged they were with their work. And then, we also did an implicit association test where we measured people’s subconscious reactions to those dimensions – focus and energy. The declarative survey showed us that around 80% of the employees were very focused and very energetic. So, they were very engaged. And this was consistent with the other studies that the company had. So they had a stellar performant team. When we looked at the Implicit Association results, only 20% were in that quadrant of being highly focused and energetic, and they knew exactly what they had to do. And the others were scattered around. They were either less focused and they had a lot of energy, but they were all over the place, or they were focused but they didn’t have the energy to complete their tasks maybe because they were burnt out or maybe because they were disengaged with their team or whatever. And then, of course, there were a lot of people that were lacking both focus and energy because they’re not in the right place, they’re not happy with their work and stuff like that. So, when we showed the management team the results, that was eye-opening for them, because they told us, “We already knew that there were issues that we needed to fix. We knew that a team was not performing as they should. But all the studies that we had showed us that 80% were good. So, we couldn’t go in and change anything because the team leader would say, but I have great people. Why would I want to change anything?”

Ana Iorga: So yeah, there is a gap between what people say and what they do, and it’s not that people are misleading you. They might not know. So, we all consider ourselves to be very good people, to be responsible, to be unbiased. Of course, we are rational and we analyze everything and biases don’t work for us. But it’s not like that. When I started reading about neuromarketing and I read about the decisions that are not rational and conscious, I didn’t agree with that. I said, “No, that’s not possible! I’m a very rational person, I analyze everything. I don’t let emotions get me.” And then, I started reading more and I went like, “Okay, maybe I was not right and my perception was wrong.” And yeah, I completely changed my view on how people decide and how they react.

Andra Zaharia: That’s super interesting! And that was actually one of the things that I wanted to explore, simply because I’m sure that working with all these concepts and constantly adding new layers of complexity and understanding to all these issues, changed the way you behave in your personal life, not just in your professional life. What have been some of these changes that you saw in your own behavior, over time?

Ana Iorga: I’m trying to minimize the impact of biases.

Andra Zaharia: Aren’t we all?

Ana Iorga: Yeah! Actually, I’m having fun observing myself.

Andra Zaharia: I love that! I’ve never heard that. I tend to take myself very seriously, which is something I’m trying to work on, but I’ve never heard someone say they have fun with this. And I guess it should be fun to make it a source of pleasure for our brain and not constantly a source of effort.

Ana Iorga: I remember once I wanted to buy a new car. So, that was, I don’t know, seven or eight years ago. And I knew exactly what kind of car wanted – I wanted to be large enough to take half of the house with me when we go on vacation with the kids, I wanted it to be higher, like an SUV because, in my mind, that was related to safety and me being aware of the biases about women driving, so I just wanted to have a big car, just like that. Because, if I have a big car in the intersection, no one is going to mess with me. So, these were my perceptions. So, we went to different brands, different automakers, and I had a budget in mind, but I didn’t really like what I saw. So, my husband told me, “Let’s go to another brand. Let’s go to this brand.” And I said, “It’s out of our budget. I don’t want us to spend more than what we decided because it’s just a car. I don’t want to spend more than that.” And he said, “Well, I just scheduled you for a test drive so now you have to go.” So I said, “Okay, I’m going to go but I’m not going to buy that car. I assure you, I’m not going to spend that money.”

Ana Iorga: So, then, I got into the car and I kind of liked it. I liked the experience. I liked the way it was built. I liked the quality and everything. So, when I was driving, when I entered I said, “No way. I’m not going to buy it.” I was talking to myself, “Just make sure you’re not going to get this car.” And then, I started loving it. And I was like, “But I really like it. I mean, it’s different than the other ones.” So, then, my brain was like, “Okay, just to appease your rational brand, let’s find some benefits so that you can buy the car.” So then, probably the sales guy saw me that I liked the car, and so he told me, “Well, we’re having a new model coming in. So, if you buy this car, it’s the old model, I can give you this discount. I can give you the perks and the most powerful motor. And you also get a discount and you also get tires and you also get this and that.” So then, when I started writing everything, putting it on paper in an Excel file, it looked like a pretty good deal. And I convinced my rational brain that it is actually a pretty good deal if you look at all the other perks that you get on top of that. So, I ended up buying that car.

Andra Zaharia: So, I think that one of the things that you’ve mentioned previously as well, is that we should give ourselves a bit of freedom to change our minds and to make that okay. Because for a long time and what we saw in society, as well, was this idea of obviously staying true to yourself, to your principles and every other decision and choice should be aligned with that particular story and structure that we have instilled in ourselves. It’s just that there are so many things around us that are changing. And what I find particularly interesting about neuroscience, neuropsychology, is that we have all these studies coming up and there’s been obviously a lot more budget and funding available to uncover these things than ever before, that we have all these things coming up that challenge what we thought we knew about how the brain works, how the human mind works, why our behavior is the way it is. And that happens in nutrition as well – things that we thought were good turn out to be bad, and some of the things that were touted as really, really bad turned out to be not that bad. And it’s difficult for us to absorb all these shifts or these changes and things that we thought were fundamental. How do you particularly deal with these changes or these new discoveries that really shake up some of the structural elements of our lives?

Ana Iorga: So as a scientist I thought it is very important to have an open mind and to be willing to accept that you were wrong. I think this is one of the most important factors that help you grow as a person, as a scientist also. Because, as you said, the research challenged a lot of our assumptions and if you have a fixed mindset – fixed meaning that you don’t want to change your beliefs – then you cannot grow. It is okay to accept that, based on our current understanding, this is how we think the brain works, this is what we think it’s good for us. But in 20 years, we might find out that we’re completely wrong because, at this moment, you just see a bit of a picture. Then, as science progresses and you learn more and you have a deeper understanding, the picture broadens, or it gets deeper, depending on how you look at it. So, it is normal that you might see things differently. It’s just okay. You have to accept that. You don’t beat yourself up because you believed something in good faith. And I also tend to take everything with a grain of salt, now. So, I don’t believe 100% everything I hear, especially if there are new discoveries. I’m a bit skeptical, maybe, and I just wait to see, “Okay, let’s wait for another two or three years and see if this discovery just proves to be right or wrong.” So, yeah, this is how I approach it.

Andra Zaharia: That is very helpful – relying on time-tested principles. I mean, I guess that’s why stoicism is making a comeback and other things that have been around for thousands of years, simply because they haven’t changed. That’s why I find it fascinating that human nature, well, let’s say the core components, they’re kind of still the same. Our initial brain, the one that formed around our sense of smell, and that directs all these subconscious reactions, is still the one that always triggers before our rational brain and we tend to forget that, simply because there’s this distance in time between that point and this point where we are now. One of my last questions is around – you mentioned that you take everything with a grain of salt. And definitely, it’s important for us to cultivate our ability to see nuance and to understand that most things are not black and white. They’re usually on a spectrum, and that dealing with the spectrum takes a lot of effort. But there’s also this tendency that I think everyone noticed, of challenging things – based on one agenda or another – challenging things and trying to bring them down. Like, we see a lot of conspiracy theories, and they’re widely circulated. We’ve seen many, many things. I mean, there are tons of examples out there, depending on when you listen to this, pick your example. How do we make sure that we stay in this letting in and accepting that there are multiple possibilities and multiple interpretations? How do we make sure that we keep this on a constructive and positive note and not let it slip into conspiracy theories and behaviors that tend to lead to radical opinions that hurt people or groups or societies, at large?

Ana Iorga: Yeah. This is a very interesting and very good question. I developed for myself a sense of, whenever I see a new movement – call it whatever you want to call it, all the hashtags – whenever I see it evolving, I become very critical of it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s aligned with my principles and values or it is not aligned. I start to dissect it and to see who benefits from that? What are the forces at play? How is manipulation working with people? And how is it influencing? Because what I’ve seen in the last years with, as I said, society, political, different kinds of movements, most of them had an agenda. Most of them might have been good movements, in the beginning, they were fueled by good intentions, but then they got derailed by some agenda or the other. So, I think the keyword here is balance. Of course, you have your own values and principles and beliefs, and you need to stick to them because they represent you and they are a choice. You choose to believe in something and to act in a certain way. But you have to be skeptical and to just keep a distance and analyze who’s benefiting from that, who’s reading the agenda, who’s behind. Do a bit of research and see who’s paying for that, promoting the post if we talk about social media – if you have time, and you have the interest to do research. Otherwise, if I don’t really have time for that I’m just keeping a bit of a distance and see how does this unravel. And then, I decide whether I want to take part in it or not.

Andra Zaharia: That is very helpful! And I think those questions – and I will make sure to write them in the show notes – I think these questions are very, very helpful. And I believe in the power of questions to helping us extract things from reality that we wouldn’t normally, because we don’t have these questions at the top of our minds, they’re not a reflex, they’re not a habit. And just having them and just sometimes seeing them but working with them in writing would be the best way to help our brain assimilate.

Ana Iorga: Yeah! And all those movements, they play on our biases. We might favor one faction or the other, or one stance or the other. And if we look at them, they play on a lot of biases in society, which, again, it’s tricky because whoever is driving the agenda knows that people, as a mass, are going to react in different ways and they’re just playing on those reactions and feeling. So, I think there’s a lot of manipulation.

Andra Zaharia: There is! And speaking of things that strengthen our critical thinking and our ability to see, recognize, and work with these things and kind of manage them and manage our own lives, what are some key resources that you’d recommend listeners, just to start maybe building or expanding their vocabulary and adding new concepts to their toolbox, so they can make it easier for themselves to make sound decisions and have a sound rationale?

Ana Iorga: So, one of the authors that shaped me as I grew professionally, is Dan Ariely – he is my favorite behavioral economist and he opened my eyes to how irrational we can be; so, I recommend all of his books. I started with “Predictably Irrational” as probably everybody or most people have heard of it. And then, I moved into reading all his books. So, I think understanding his approach to testing different settings and people’s reactions, understanding and internalizing that approach, it is very helpful for us, as professionals and also as human beings. Then, I would recommend the work of Thaler and Sunstein on Nudges and behaviors, and how to influence, how to help people build a better life if you want. Of course, we have to be careful that these nudges can be used in a negative way or in the wrong direction, but that is the regulator’s responsibility to make sure that all the nudges and processes are benefiting people, the population.

Andra Zaharia: Sorry to interrupt, but I do have a quick example here. I remember a couple of months ago, a friend of mine showed me a website, where you could actually, let’s say, start a campaign to specifically target a person with a particular kind of message. So, for example, if you’d want your spouse to stop smoking, you could pay for a custom campaign that would bombard them with ads wherever they’d go with that particular message. And of course, it can be used in a negative way as well. And that felt so weird, unethical, very, very intrusive, and just so wrong. And we were both talking about it. I mean, we both work in marketing, and you have all this experience. I know that behavior can be manipulated in many ways, and we’re all influenced by many, many things. But this is so, so wrong. And just examples like these are just the tip of the iceberg, just a tiny, tiny bit of everything that’s going on in our lives. So, understanding these nudges might help us recognize them, see them in reality, and just keep them from overwhelming us and take away our power to decide what is right for us.

Ana Iorga: Exactly! Once you become aware and we are informed, as consumers, as citizens, then it is a bit more difficult to manipulate us and to sway our decisions, based on different agendas. Of course, it is still possible because we are humans and there’s this familiarity effect. If you hear something over and over and over, you start to believe it, you kind of start to see, “Well, there might be some truth in it.” And it affects your decisions, it affects the way you look at an issue.

Andra Zaharia: That is very helpful! And thank you for sharing all these resources and stories and examples. It’s been such an insightful conversation and I think that whoever wants to pursue particular topics, they can have their pick at all of these rosters of examples and resources and start digging a lot deeper. If anyone wants to follow your work, what would be the best place to do that?

Ana Iorga: They can connect with me on LinkedIn or go on and see what we do. And they can write to me also. My email address is on the website.

Andra Zaharia: Perfect! Thank you so, so much. I will put everything that we mentioned and talked about in the show notes. And maybe, at some point, I would love to build on this conversation and take it further. You’ve been extremely generous! Thank you!

Ana Iorga: Thank you very much for your invitation, Andra, and thank you for the pleasant conversation. Have a lovely weekend!