Central and Peripheral Processing: We Are of Two Minds

People have two main psychological systems humans use to process information. The central processing system uses more cognitive resources, and is used to evaluate a situation deeply. The peripheral processing system uses a shallower level of thinking, and thus less cognitive resources. Situations that require quick thinking or automotive processes utilize the peripheral processing system. The two systems are used simultaneously in humans, but there are situations where one system is prevalent over others. Advertisers can manipulate a person’s likelihood of using either system in an effort to increase the persuasiveness of their message.

Both processing systems have their own merit. Imagine yourself in a situation where you could only use your central processing system to gather information in your environment. How would this feel? You would be able to focus on specific elements in your environment at a time. You would assess the deeper meaning of an advertisement, beyond all the various colours, shapes and attractive images. You would be able to muster your full concentration to learn a new concept. However, solely relying on the central processing system will leave you vulnerable to surrounding threats. Like central vision, the central processing system has one primary or central focus at a time. Central vision allows you to visually identify the intricacies of an image, allowing you to recognize the distinctive colours of a painting and the brush strokes used by the artist. Unfortunately, your central vision won’t tell you that your pant leg has caught fire while you stare the painting. Neither will your central processing system, until your peripheral processing system tells your brain to switch the focus of the central processing system to the fire.

So how does this information tie into the role of an effective advertiser? Well, it turns out that advertisers can manipulate the design of an advertisement to elicit the viewer to use either processing system.  If an advertiser has a stronger argument, they are more likely to guide the viewer to use their central processing system. The rationale behind this is that people using central processing find stronger, highly detailed arguments more persuasive. Whereas strong arguments are more persuasive with central processing, weak arguments are more persuasive to individuals using their peripheral system.

There are a few factors, or cues that can be manipulated to increase the likelihood of a person to use their peripheral processing system. When a person is using their peripheral processing to make a decision, their mind relies on a few cues. Their perception of these cues will guide them to a final decision. For instance, an advertisement that uses an elite athlete to endorse their product may create the impression that this product is superior to other products without the same endorsement. Chances are that if you’re in a rush to leave the store, you’re more likely to purchase the product that leaves the first initial impression.

On the other hand, an individual is more likely to rely on their central processing system when they are planning a major purchase. Businesses can take advantage of this idea by generating strong arguments in favour of their products to increase the persuasive effect on consumers. Let’s say you’re in the market for a new car. You narrow your choices down to two final brands, both notable. Brand one presents you with a weak argument as to why you should purchase their car. Brand two creates an inspiring argument as to why their car is more likely to suit your needs. What brand would sound better to you? It is interesting to note that if both brands each have equally persuasive arguments, we actually rely on our peripheral processing system to make a decision.

Modern day advertising uses years of accumulated experience and knowledge. Understanding how people process information takes precedence in an age of fierce competition, giving the one with greater knowledge and experience the upper hand. People make decisions on a daily basis; some of these decisions require very little thought, utilizing peripheral thinking. Other decisions require a deeper level of thinking, using central processing. Understandings how consumers conduct their decision making decision can quite literally translate to the difference between a company recording a profit or a loss on their financial statements. 

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