Scientists are scanning brain activity in the hopes of catching sight of the physical mechanisms that determine whether you prefer Coke over Pepsi.
The nascent research, known as “neuromarketing,” could one day lead to new advertising strategies that directly stimulate hard-wired mental reflexes rather than appealing to fuzzy consumer attitudes.
“The hope in neuromarketing is that there’s some process in the brain that is a better predictor of whether people will actually buy things than what we already have,” said Colin Camerer, professor of business economics at the California Institute of Technology.
Over the past several years, American and German neuroscientists have been using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, brain scans to observe what happens in the brain when people evaluate things like beer, cars and politicians.
The latest big finding came from neuroeconomists, who study how people make decisions about everything from buying a lottery ticket to deciding whether to avoid sitting next to a creepy guy on the bus. Earlier this month, Stanford University researchers reported that they’ve pinpointed the parts of the brain that handle two major parts of a choice — figuring out how nifty something is and then calculating how likely it is that you’ll get it.
The study, published in the May 11 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, was designed to analyze different parts of the decision-making process. Researchers told subjects to press a button quickly when they saw a target on a screen. Before the target appeared, the subjects were told how much they might win during that round, from nothing to $5.
The scientists found that an area of the prefrontal cortex in the front of the brain lights up when the odds of winning money appear good, suggesting that the region is in charge of calculating the likelihood of getting a reward.
A more primitive area of the brain, in the subcortex, appears to be in charge of evaluating the potential reward — in this case, money. The bigger the reward, the more excited this area becomes, regardless of the chances of actually getting it. Think of it as your friend who urges you to bet $1,000 on black at the roulette table, never mind the actual chances.
Why does all this matter? Study co-author Brian Knutson, an assistant professor of neuroscience, said his findings add to previous research by unraveling specific decision-making processes. “Our studies are suggesting there are different assessments that the brain is making,” he said.
Ultimately, brain scans might be able to give marketers better insight into how a person’s mind reacts to a product. Focus groups are helpful, but they don’t always predict what consumers will actually do, as Coca-Cola discovered during the New Coke fiasco, as described in Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller, Blink. The scans might make it harder for test consumers to intentionally or unintentionally mislead marketers.
The scans could also help pinpoint parts of the brain that react differently when someone looks at, say, a new car. “Think of the brain as a household: There are some things you want to sell to the wife, or the husband, or the kids,” Camerer said.
At stake is more than just greater understanding of the brain’s mysterious inner workings and boons for advertisers. In the wildest dreams of researchers, their findings could help political leaders fine-tune how they make choices about everything from geopolitics to government finances.
“It’s a long leap from how dopamine is firing in the brain to what I would tell George Bush about Social Security,” said Caltech’s Camerer. “But the goal … is to eventually produce models which are not only correct about brain structure but could provide perspective on issues like that.”
Indeed, companies like DaimlerChrysler have reportedly hired scientists to prowl around for ways to manipulate the minds of consumers. Commercial Alert, a watchdog group, is warning that the research could lead to increased consumerism, more effective political propaganda and “degraded values.”
But it’s not time to worry about mind control just yet, said Antonio Rangel, assistant professor of economics at Stanford. According to him, brain-scanning technology has made major advances in recent years, but it’s still far from good enough to lead to more effective advertising manipulation by General Motors and Ford, despite what proponents may suggest. “There is no single piece of science that I have seen that supports what they do,” he said.
By Randy Dotinga