Neuromarketing: Don’t ask the person, ask the brain

How neuroscience reveals our financial habits more accurately than conventional surveys.

Words / Richard Rawlinson 

Illustration / Aron Vellekoop

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Research about market research reveals our answers to survey questions can be unreliable: when asked whether we’d buy a new product or vote a certain way, 70% of us say ‘yes’ even though just 45% actually follow through. Behavioural economists use the term ‘hypothetical bias’ to describe this discrepancy.

Professor Colin Camerer of California Institute of Technology says: “When there are no actual consequences, people often say ‘yes’ but actually mean ‘no’”.

He’s now using neuro-economics to get a clearer picture of our purported intentions, concluding, “don’t ask the person, ask the brain”. Having settled his human guinea pigs into a brain imaging scanner, Camerer and colleagues asked them if they would buy certain items. The experiment confirmed affirmative replies were often contradicted by signs of unconscious brain activity. To check results, the researchers then surprised participants by giving them $50, saying the cost of any chosen purchase would be debited from the cash hand-out. The neurological evidence helped predict those who would switch from ‘yes’ to ‘no’.

Other methods used to analyse whether consumers are emotionally invested in buying something include eye tracking and computer mouse movement. The former looks at pupil dilation, which research suggests is an involuntary response to arousal or attraction. The latter studies the speed with which we move a mouse to a click box as a sign of whether we have ‘skin in the game’ when online shopping.

Camerer believes we’ve arrived at a golden age of social science with multiple ways to study behaviour, including financial habits. He’s recently acquired a ‘smart vending machine’, with a giant screen at the front that can be programmed to show any product. “We can see how people respond to the price increase of an item they buy habitually, whether they’re deterred by the rise or just ignore it,” he says. In fact, a webcam can record eye movement and detect whether they look at the price at all.

Literature and leadership

Reading literary fiction can help develop leadership skills, according to research suggesting fiction enhances the brain’s ability to keep an open mind while processing information, a necessary skill for effective decision-making.

Business visionaries from Bill Gates to Elon Musk are avid readers but primarily of non-fiction of the kind you’d expect to gain knowledge related to their interests. But a University of Toronto study has discovered reading stories, as opposed to essays, tempers the desire for ‘cognitive closure’ – or the wish to “reach a quick conclusion in decision making and an aversion to ambiguity”.

This can enhance those management skills most tricky to define: self-discipline, creative problem solving, empathy, learning agility and rational judgement – in other words the characteristics of emotional intelligence.

While business books tend to simplify issues to binary right and wrong, reading literature requires us to savour volumes of information and change our mind as the plot unravels and characters compete often with equally valid viewpoints.

Nancy Kidder at Books@Work finds executives and employees who read and discuss are more willing to tackle complex questions such as how we balance tradition with innovation or how we might listen to each other with more care.

Technology hype cycles

Over the last two decades, technological innovations from social networking to wireless internet have transformed the way we live, work and communicate. While some technologies have proved transformative (contactless payments, for example, or cloud computing that frees up folders), others have neither lived up to media headlines nor instantly delivered for venture capitalists racing to back tech’s next big thing.

US IT analyst and consultant Gartner has captured the trajectory of emerging technologies from 2000 to 2018 with a graphical presentation, the Hype Cycle. It charts the roller coaster journey from early public awareness to wide adoption and economic viability, and identifies five poetically named phases along the way:

Technology trigger: a potential breakthrough kicks things off. Peak of inflated expectations: a surge of publicity is accompanied by bold predictions. Trough of disillusionment: interest and enthusiasm wanes. Slope of enlightenment: early adopters lead the way. Plateau of productivity: mainstream adoption starts to take off as viability is more clearly defined.

The charts shows how micro-blogging via platforms such as Facebook rose to peak-interest between 2006 and 2010, and how other innovations underwhelmed. Mobile commerce, for example, was ahead of its time in the early 2000s due to the limitations of mobile phones. Online transactions via mobiles only took off with the introduction of smartphones. Conversely, the smartphone became a challenger to the Kindle, which peaked in 2009 when the e-reader was hyped as the end of physical books. Today, only 19% of adults in the US own one.

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“Business books tend to simplify issues to binary right and wrong”