Sunday, May 18, 2008


Are you a Coke or Pepsi drinker? Do you pull into McDonald’s golden arches or prefer to “have it your way” at Burger King? When it comes to toothpaste, which flavor gets you brushing, Colgate or Crest? If you think it’s just your taste buds that guide these preferences, you may be surprised by what neuroscientists are discovering when they peer inside the brain as it makes everyday choices like these.
Don’t worry–no one’s scanning your head as you stand in front of the beverage aisle or sit in line at the drive-through. Instead, brain scientists are asking volunteers to ponder purchasing choices while lying inside high-tech brain scanners. The resulting real-time images indicate where and how the brain analyzes options, weighs risks and rewards, factors in experiences and emotions and ultimately sets a preference. “We can use brain imaging to gain insight into the mechanisms behind people’s decisions in a way that is often difficult to get at simply by asking a person or watching their behavior,” says Dr. Gregory Berns, a psychiatrist at Emory University.
To scientists, it’s all part of the larger question of how the human brain makes decisions. But the answers may be invaluable to Big Business, which plowed an estimated $8 billion in 2006 into market research in an effort to predict–and sway–how we would spend our money. In the past, marketers relied on relatively crude measures of what got us buying: focus-group questionnaires and measurements of eye movements and perspiration patterns (the more excited you get about something, the more you tend to sweat). Now researchers can go straight to the decider in chief–the brain itself, opening the door to a controversial new field dubbed neuromarketing.

For now, most of the research is purely academic, although even brain experts anticipate that it’s just a matter of time before their findings become a routine part of any smart corporation’s marketing plans. Some lessons, particularly about how the brain interprets brand names, are already enticing advertisers.

Whenever it can, it relies on a type of “quick key” that takes advantage of experiences and stored information. That’s where things like brands, familiarity and trust come in–they’re a shortcut for knowing what to expect. “You run from the devil you know,” says Montague. “And you run to the brand that you know, because to sit there and deliberate chews up time, and that makes you less efficient than the next guy.”
That’s certainly music to advertisers’ ears, but, warn neuroscientists, it’s unlikely that our purchasing behavior follows a single pathway. Montague, for one, is investigating how factors like trust, altruism and the feeling of obligation when someone does you a favor can divert and modify steps in the decision-making tree. “The capacity to use brain responses and relate them to behavior has accelerated at a breathtaking pace over the past four years and yielded an incredible amount of information,” he says. How marketers use that data to hone their messages remains to be seen.

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I do not think it remains to be seen. I see it already.
When you see or listen to the same commercial 100 times a day, your brain automatically records it among the important things and the moment you have to make a choice you certainly choose that.
Otherwise, would they spend so much in commercials?
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