Somatic markers are a kind of bookmark or shortcut in our brains, created by past experiences of punishment or rewards, and serve to connect an experience or an emotion with a specific required reaction that occurs in the moment, without us realizing it, helping to guide us towards a decision that our brains know will take us to the best, least painful ‘or most satisfying outcome.
These somatic markers are what many refer to as pre-programming, typically established in the childhood years, based on experiences that we’ve had. These markers are not set in stone however, as we continue to make new connections and set new bookmarks throughout our lives.
Here’s an example: Imagine a time when you, as a young child in kindergarten or first grade, got home from school hungry and you ran to the kitchen to see what that delicious smell was coming from the stove? On the stove there was a cast-iron pan in which you see a few slices of sizzling bacon. Without thinking twice, you put one hand on the handle of the iron pan and the other in the pan, trying to get a piece of bacon and immediately you screamed and pulled back with pain because both the handle and the bacon were extremely hot. You didn’t burn yourself too badly but you’re still in tears when your mom comes running to comfort you. Your mom sat you down at the table and gave you the delicious bacon when it was done cooking and had cooled down enough to eat. About 30 minutes later, forgetting about the pain, you’re playing with your toys.
The tenderness of the burn vanished in a few days because you were young, and your cells regenerated pretty fast. You may have thought that you forgot all about that nasty experience, however your human mind it’s not quite so lenient as you are. Our minds put events like this one back into our subconscious however, it doesn’t ever really forget what happened.
Technically, what happened that day was that you added a new program to your subconscious mind because the neurons in the brain have linked together the concepts of “hot”, stove, fingertips, pain, pan, etc. This linking of different concepts by a certain experience creates a memory like a bookmark or a shortcut in our brains. This is called a somatic marker and we have hundreds if not thousands of them in our brains based on things that have happened to us in our past. This is how we know how we should approach a dog safely, in order not to get bit, or how we should not touch anything in a hot oven, etc. What is interesting is that if someone asks us how we know those things many of us will just say it’s pure instinct. But is it really?
Let’s take another example; Let’s assume that we are going to buy bottled water from our nearest grocery store. If you are like many consumers, you would think about your choice for a few seconds before deciding what water to buy. You would go to the shelves with the bottled water, and we all know there are dozens of different types of bottled water: glass or plastic, in all shapes, colors and sizes, etc. You may think that your choice of one of them vs another is a rational choice, however studies show that the choices we make when we buy products are rarely rational choices. What happens is that in our subconscious mind there are multiple conversations that go on when we choose one product over another. For the fun of it,
let’s take a look at what might take place inside one person’s head, who is shopping for bottled water, as they decide which one to buy.
“Someone once told me that Dasani.. the bottle water that Coca Cola makes, is nothing more than tap water. I don’t think I want to pay money for getting tap water, so I’ll pass. How about Aquafina? This is purified drinking water, made by Pepsico. I don’t think there’s anything special about it so probably not the water for me. Ooh, how about the artesian water Fiji? Those bottles look cool. I always wanted to go to Fiji. Will I ever make it there? How about Crystal Geyser Alpine spring water? The bottle looks the same as the rest but it’s from the mountains. Oh, Evian. It’s a natural spring water from France and I really love France. No idea where the name comes from but isn’t France a beautiful country, with great food? The light blue bottle looks so clean and simple and kind of cold looking, makes me think of the Alps. Oh, and It’s expensive too which probably means it’s special. I will buy a bottle of that one to try it out. “
Isn’t it interesting how you’ve not tasted the water, but your gut tells you that you’ve made the right decision? However, if anybody would ask you how you reached that decision, more than likely you would say something like: oh I just did or I just knew, or.. I just wanted to try because my instinct tells me this is the right one for me. But the real reason behind your choice was based on a mountain of associations, some positive and others negative, that your brain made in just a few seconds, without you being consciously aware of it.
When we make any decision to buy something, our brains start scanning through huge amounts of memories, of facts and emotions. The scanning happens in just a sweep of a second, and the result it’s exactly what we put in our shopping carts. Many studies done by major brand and retail experts found that around 50% of all purchasing decisions by all shoppers are made in an instant and therefore unconsciously, right at the point of sale – which is not when we go to the register to pay, but right when we put the product in the basket.
In the previous example we illustrated that it takes us less than a few seconds to choose the water that we want to buy, or to associate touching a hot pan with pain, and all of these are emotional reactions. Somatic markers are more than just a collection of reflexes from our past. We create new somatic markers every single day and add them to our already existing folder of memories. We do that for everything that we choose to buy such as food, shampoos, moisturizers, face creams, clothing, all our electronics, etc. We also use them for other decisions too, like how much money we want to spend, or how much money we want to get out from an ATM machine. We also use them when we plug something into an electrical outlet, knowing not to stick our fingers in there.
Here’s another example: Have you ever considered why many consumers would buy a Mercedes over another car that may look just as nice, be just as efficient and have a much lower price point? Many people will say: I want a Mercedes because it’s a German car. But what does that really mean? There must be more to it than the zip code where it was made, right? There are other German car manufacturers whose cars are high quality but have a lower price point. What makes a Mercedes vehicle so desirable? Most of the time it’s because our subconscious mind has been programmed to connect Germany and the Mercedes brand with technological excellence, with high standards and precision, as well as with consistency and efficiency. But do you think that people who are driving a Mercedes realize that that’s why they’re driving that car? That their brains already went through a multitude of factor considerations before they decided to buy it? Put yourself in their shoes and imagine yourself as a Mercedes driver. Have you ever even researched anything about Mercedes and German engineering yourself? Or have you simply heard about it from marketers who made ads online or on TV praising it? So, are these somatic markers we have always formed naturally by our experiences? Or is there a chance that marketing companies are helping us create them in our subconscious mind? Have you ever felt that when you make a purchase, you’re making the right choice but you cannot really articulate why that is the right choice for you?
If that ever happens to you it’s more than likely because your choice for certain brands and products has little to do with the product itself but instead has a lot to do with the somatic markers that the brand and its marketers very carefully created and implanted in your subconscious mind.
Studies have shown that for advertisers, it’s an easy and inexpensive process to create a somatic marker in their consumers’ brains. They are skilled at grabbing our attention by creating surprising associations between 2 or more things that seem like they have nothing in common. As an example, one of the T-Mobile commercials in the United States, the one with that really cool, futuristic looking, bright pink motorcycle ridden by a girl wearing a suit and the jacket is in white, black and pink. What does the girl riding a sleek pink motorcycle have anything to do with a wireless provider? Nothing. But in the subconscious mind these images connect the desire of a young person to ride their own motorcycle. The motorcycle was pink and sleek, gearing the commercial to women, because traditionally, motorcycles were specifically targeted towards men. The sleek, pink motorcycle with the sharp dressed woman rider helps to make an emotional connection that the brain links to T-Mobile, presenting it as the wireless company of the future. That same commercial brought out different somatic markers in different people and TMobile had a big market increase because of that campaign.
Keep in mind that because somatic markers are based on past experiences of both reward or punishment, fear and happiness, sadness and humor, can all connect to our subconscious minds as well.
How many commercials have you seen for medicine that helps fight depression, or for diet pills and gym memberships to prevent obesity? These are examples of advertising based on fear driven somatic markers, as marketers and advertisers attempt to scare us into believing that not buying their products will make us feel less safe or less happy or less healthy or less free, or less in control of our lives. Do you remember those commercials for Mucinex, the cold medicine that helps with stuffy nose and sinuses? The commercials had this kind of gross, kind of funny looking green mucus, cartoon like character, making funny faces and shrinking as we take the medicine. Or the famous little gecko from GEICO? Isn’t he adorable? How many consumers do you think switched to Geico for their insurance needs because of that little gecko? Plenty.
You can see how important these somatic markers are. Companies that focus advertising to create them are a major factor in how well we, as consumers, tend to respond to the advertising and marketing campaigns focused on this technique.
As a fun exercise, challenge yourself to identify some rational arguments that you catch yourself thinking before you make your next purchasing decision. Also try to identify what somatic markers are coming to the surface when you choose to buy certain products over others.
Author: Sanda Kruger
Sanda is an entrepreneur, real estate investor, health coach and professional dancer. Sanda is an entrepreneur with more than 20-year experience in business development and project management in the fields of life, health and fitness coaching. She is also a real estate investor and a banker, who learned outstanding adapted business strategies, sales and marketing techniques, communication, and goal setting skills, hands-on, through life and work experiences. She is a certified fitness professional and is the creator of two original fitness programs, called BellyCore® Fitness and AquaCor®.