Professor Steven Sweldens’ inaugural address: consumers’ conscious and unconscious processes

Steven Sweldens, Endowed Professor of Consumer Behavior and Marketing at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) will deliver his inaugural address Puppets on a String? Studying Conscious and Unconscious Processes in Consumer Research on Friday, 18 May 2018. His research demonstrates that advertisements have automatic effects on consumers’ attitudes towards products and brands. Consumers are influenced by simple marketing messages without their awareness of the source of the influence, and beyond their ability to control or counter the effects. Sweldens will discuss this evidence in light of the popular theory that humans have two systems of processing information, one operating consciously, the other unconsciously. He will He will argue that we now should acknowledge that the human mind cannot be neatly divided into two complementary thought processing systems. The reality is much more complex.

For more than a century, scholars in psychology have debated whether humans are ‘of two minds,’ that is, whether they have both conscious and unconscious thoughts, and whether both conscious and unconscious thought processes determine their behaviour. According to Freud’s ‘iceberg model’, conscious thought represents just the tip of the iceberg, with most thought processes taking place unconsciously. Marketing scholars and practitioners have embraced the iceberg model with great enthusiasm, and have enhanced the model with layers of drivers and motivations; only the top layer is consciously accessible, and the real drivers are hidden underneath. According to one of the most influential contemporary scientific theories, human thinking is governed by dual systems. System 1, it is argued, is evolutionarily the oldest system, based in parts of the brain that humans share with relatively simple or primitive animals. It operates unconsciously and uncontrollably, with low effort, has huge capacity, is fast, nonverbal, parallel, and associative. System 2, conversely, is evolutionarily more recent, resides in the human frontal cortex, operates consciously, controllably, with high effort, has small capacity, is slow, verbal, serial, and based on rules.

Despite their intuitive appeal, dual system theories have been challenged in recent years. Professor Sweldens will discuss some of their more problematic aspects and the research he has conducted testing core propositions of the dual system approach. His research into the way brands become more well-liked through advertising and conditioning procedures is highly relevant to the debate, but so is research on people’s risk perceptions and self-control performance. In general, Prof. Sweldens has seen support for some of the key predictions of dual process theory, but little support for its strong claim that mental processes should clearly belong to one of two systems with highly separable features. Sweldens will conclude his address by saying that researchers should now really start recognising the full complexity of the human mind and embrace research that is more detailed, more precise – and perhaps a bit less grand in its claims.

Inaugural address

Professor Steven Sweldens’ inaugural address is open to the public, and will take place on Friday, 18 May 2018. The ceremony will start at 16:00 in the Auditorium of the Erasmus Building on Woudestein campus, Burgemeester Oudlaan 50, Rotterdam and will be followed by a reception.


Professor Sweldens’ address will be preceded by a scientific symposium on the same topic, entitled The role of consciousness in consumer behavior’. During the symposium, three international experts will explain the operation of conscious and unconscious processes in consumer behavior from their respective disciplines. Dr. Alex Genevsky (RSM) will present a view from cognitive affective neuroscience, Prof. Olivier Corneille (Université Catholique de Louvain) will present a view from social and cognitive psychology, and Dr. Lawrence Williams (University of Colorado) will present a view from consumer research.

The symposium will take place in the Forumzaal of the Van der Goot building from 12:40 – 15:15 on Friday, 18 May 2018.

About Steven Sweldens

Steven Sweldens is Endowed Professor of Consumer Behavior and Marketing at RSM, Director of Doctoral Education at the Erasmus Research Institute of Management (ERIM), and Distinguished Research Fellow at INSEAD.

Steven's research interests centre on the psychological laws underlying advertising and the creation of brand attitudes. The importance of this research has been recognised with several awards including the EMAC McKinsey Award for the best European Marketing Dissertation. He was runner-up for the American Marketing Association John A. Howard Award for the worldwide best marketing dissertation, and won several Dutch awards. His work has been published in the top scientific journals in marketing (Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research), psychology (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Personality and Social Psychology Review) and OB (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes).

After obtaining his PhD at RSM in 2009, Steven became a marketing professor at INSEAD. There he taught MBA, PhD and executive courses in marketing strategy , social psychological foundations of management, experimental design and marketing in the financial sector. His teaching skills were lauded repeatedly and earned him the INSEAD Dean’s Commendation for Excellence in MBA Teaching. He published a case study on the Renova Paper Company, which quickly became a best-seller and won the highest award at the ECCH Case Awards in 2012 as the fastest-selling new case in business education.

In 2014, Steven returned to RSM where he teaches the marketing core course in RSM’s MBA and EMBA programmes. Since 2018, Steven has served as Director of doctoral education and research master programs at the Erasmus Research Institute of Management (ERIM).

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at

Alumni , Bachelor / IBA , Companies , Parttime Master Bedrijfskunde , Executive education , Faculty & Research , Homepage , In the spotlight , Newsroom , Marketing Management , Master , MBA , Intranet , China