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The difference between wanting and liking

Why liking a product is not the same as wanting it

Imagine being at your friend’s birthday party. You have a drink, a chat, and then you notice this amazing looking buffet. You want to fill up your plate with all the delicious treats. However, your personal trainer who drags you into the gym every day is looking over your shoulder. Thinking about him and all the effort you made to be healthy makes you like the buffet less and less. This is an example of a conflict between two different motivation systems in your brain: wanting and liking.

Wanting it, but not liking it

The major difference between wanting and liking has to do with how our mind operates: conscious or unconscious. Daniel Kahneman has divided the information processing into two systems; the subconscious System 1 and conscious System 2.

Liking is a conscious state of the brain, meaning that you are aware of external stimuli or processes within yourself. Wanting is a subconscious state, meaning that processes in the brain occur automatically and without you noticing. Subconsciousness is also the place where most of the work in our mind gets done: automatic skills, information processing, intuition and dreaming are all examples of unconsciousness events. Neuroscientists even believe that 95% of our cognitive activities happen in the unconscious mind!

Let’s go back to the buffet. If you want to fill up your plate with the inviting food, you’re probably hungry and your stomach is telling you to do so. This is your first reaction after seeing the table with food. In our dopamine article, we told you about the motivation to look for food. It’s a natural reaction that happens automatically and unconsciously. This means that our wanting system can be influenced without us noticing.

Liking and wanting at a buffet
Wanting versus liking when seeing a delicious buffet

How often do you walk in a supermarket and smell all the delicious, fresh baked bread? This is not a coincidence, the supermarket uses the smell of bread to unconsciously make you want to buy more. You can’t tell yourself to not like this smell. It just happens. Shops have many more techniques that can trick you into buying. Therefore it helps to hold on to your shopping list when you go shopping!

What about liking? Standing in front of the buffet, you start to consciously think about it. How much will you take? Should I try the apple pie or the pumpkin soup? Or maybe both? The fact that you are (probably) on a diet makes you think twice about it. Do you have the willpower to choose a healthy alternative? Eventually, you decide to stick with just the soup. You consciously made this decision.

A conflict in the sweets aisle

What on earth have this table full of food, and bread from the supermarket to do with your business? In a lot of cases, what you want is what you like. However, as shown above, in some cases this is not what you do. Consumer choice is an example where wanting and liking are often in conflict. We go back to the supermarket to further demonstrate this. Eye-tracking research – where researchers look at the eye movements of their participants – shows that there is a so-called approach-avoidance in the sweets aisle. Customers in a supermarket know what they want to buy, but keep looking at other products too.

Specifically, this happens in the sweets aisle. Apparently, only 20% of our eye movements are related to what we actually buy, the other 80% we are just looking at our favourite candy. This again shows that our subconscious processes have the winning hand. For you as a marketer, this is something interesting to respond to. This is the moment when neuromarketing comes in to play.

Conflict in the candy aisle
Candy creates conflict: you want it, but don’t buy it

Get inside your consumer’s brain

To make your product as appealing as possible it is key to get insight into your consumer’s brain. The most common way to do this is by asking people about their experiences with your products. This is, of course, an informative source, but there is one major problem: it only gives access to the liking system of that individual. You should be more interested in the wanting system. And that is exactly the point where neuromarketing becomes interesting. Knowledge about how the brain works can make you understand the wanting system too. This is information that is not directly visible or logic, but despite can hold great benefits for your sales, popularity and for improving your brand’s value.

Pepsi or Coke?

We will demonstrate an application of neuromarketing with a well-known, classic experiment. This experiment was one of the first that connected the brain and neuropsychology to marketing strategies. Researchers gave their participants samples of both Pepsi and Coca-Cola and looked at their brain activity. When participants were ignorant of which brand they were drinking, they favoured the taste of Pepsi. Their corresponding brain activity was present in a reward centre.

research on Pepsi versus Coca-Cola
Which one do you like: Pepsi or Coke?

Can you guess which system is linked to this part of the experiment? It’s the wanting system, participants subconsciously favour the Pepsi-flavour over the flavour of Coca-Cola.

However, when participants were aware of the brand, they favoured the taste of Coca-Cola. The brain now showed activity in areas associated with memory and emotions (hippocampus, midbrain and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). Indeed, the liking system is now present, resulting in a conscious review from the participants.

The researchers concluded that the preference for Coca-Cola is more influenced by brand image than by the taste itself. This is a perfect example of the conflict in the consumer’s brain! Apparently, we perceive a soda differently if we are aware of what brand we’re drinking. The example above clearly shows why neuromarketing can be useful in your business.

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About Neurofied

Neurofied is a behavioral science company specialized in training, consulting, and change management. We help organizations drive evidence-based and human-centric change with insights and interventions from behavioral psychology and neuroscience. Consider us your behavioral business partner who helps you build behavioral change capabilities internally.

Since 2018, we have trained thousands of professionals and worked with over 100 management, HR, growth, and innovation teams of organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, KPMG, Deloitte, Novo Nordisk, ABN AMRO, and the Dutch government. We are also frequent speakers at universities and conferences.

Our mission is to democratize the value of behavioral science for teams and organizations. If you see any opportunities to collaborate, please contact us here.


Milou Odekerken

A passion for writing combined with fascination for the brain to give you the best neuromarketing content!