Neuromarketers Are Studying Brain Scans to Influence Our Product Choices
When was the last time you made a pro-con list? Carefully considered all factors and weighed them against each other before you made a choice?
Chances are that most of your decisions do not follow this rigorous process. They are made quickly, subconsciously, and often do not adhere to any strict logic. Rather, your decisions are influenced by your mood, your relatives and friends, and a range of other factors that scientists are still unraveling.
When the shoppers were asked why they chose that bottle of wine, almost none of them noticed the music or believed it influenced their decision.
Influencing your choices is also the holy grail of marketing. Companies spend vast amounts of time and money creating product designs and ads. These ads are often tested in focus groups or individual interviews to ensure that they will do well in the market.
Traditional methods of market research rely on self-reports. The participants are asked which ad they find more appealing and why. But there are a few problems with this approach.
For one, the participants might not fully understand their true preferences. They might think that the green design looks more appealing when they compare choices, but then pick up the orange one when they mindlessly wander through the supermarket. It's well known that we humans often do not act rationally, so why would we accurately predict our own behavior?
Another issue is that we like to think of ourselves as logical. Even though our choices are at least partially made subconsciously, we have a tendency to rationalize them after the fact. For example, when supermarkets play French music, the shoppers are 3-4 times more likely to buy French wine. Play German music and German wine sales go up. But when the shoppers are asked why they chose that bottle of wine, almost none of them notice the music or believe it influenced their decision. Instead, they say that they preferred the label or price.
Finally, participants might truly know their preference but choose not to disclose it. Imagine sitting in a focus group watching a TV spot that makes fun of somebody's misfortune. You might be too embarrassed to admit that this is the funnier and more appealing spot, because you're afraid of being judged.
Results from traditional market research are therefore unavoidably subjective and biased.
In the hope of overcoming these limitations, newer ways of market research have been developed, among them neuromarketing, which applies neuroscience to marketing.
Today, neuromarketers focus their efforts on three main stages: to aid product ideation, evaluate the finished product or prototypes, and develop the best marketing strategy. In all cases, they want to find the option with the most "favorable" brain response – but exactly how this brain response is defined varies vastly between studies.
Perhaps the most promising of all non-traditional techniques is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This neuroimaging technique measures brain activity indirectly by tracking changes in blood flow. In short, active brain areas receive more oxygen-rich blood. The fMRI scanner picks up the difference between oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor blood and can therefore measure which brain areas are more active than others. But is there truly an untapped potential in the human brain that can be unlocked using neuroimaging?
A number of studies claim that functional neuroimaging has been successfully applied to marketing scenarios. For example, when researchers tried to predict the success of 6 different ads for chocolate bars, the brain response of 18 women was reportedly more predictive than their self-reported preference. The ad that was rated best in interviews was actually the least successful in a real supermarket. In contrast, the neuroimaging algorithm correctly predicted the top two selling ads.
One of the biggest fears is that the potential insights from neuromarketing studies could be used in new, disturbing ways for consumer manipulation.
This study has a number of limitations, which are representative of the majority of neuromarketing research. The field is full of experiments that are conducted with small samples or using suboptimal protocols, with a lack of appropriate control conditions. While a small number of academic researchers are using rigorous protocols, most studies are conducted by neuromarketing companies or funded by the corporations whose products were tested. Such set-ups raise the risk of biased reporting, calling into question the reliability of the findings. Publication bias – the tendency to publish only positive results which leads to a skewing of reported results in the literature – is especially common for industry-funded studies.
One of the biggest fears is that the potential insights from neuromarketing studies could be used in new, disturbing ways for consumer manipulation. If a new product or ad campaign is designed to target our subconscious decision-making better than ever before, are we less able to resist the purchase? We might believe that we all have a healthy amount of self-control, but when we're in the supermarket after a stressful day or we're struggling to manage the self-control of someone else, like a small child, is it ethical for corporations to tap our unconscious decision-making?
As with any technology, the deciding factor is how it will be used. While there are many dangerous applications that might make unhealthy products one day impossible to resist, there are also some more optimistic scenarios. For example, brain scans have been used to predict the success of an antismoking campaign. If such public health interventions that are notoriously ineffective could encourage more people to make healthier lifestyle choices, don't we all benefit? Or is this still a step too far toward manipulation and propaganda?
The conduct of the studies themselves is another problematic area. Academic researchers must go through a rigorous process before they can start a study, which involves review by an ethics board. In contrast, there are barely any regulations for corporate studies. This is not only relevant for the experience of the participants, but also for how the data are being used. Take an extreme case – the brain scan reveals that the participant has a tumor. Universities have protocols in place for how to deal with these situations – often, the scans would be reviewed by a neuro-radiologist and the participant would be informed. Commercial organizations are under no such obligation.
Neuromarketing carries great potential to nudge positive behavioral change, though it also carries the risk of abuse.
Neuromarketing is now a highly competitive field with many different vendors. The Advertising Research Foundation compared 8 vendors that used neuroscientific methods or biometrics for the research of ad campaigns and found that there were differences in methodology and approach; most were proprietary and vendors were not willing to disclose what they measured and how. This lack of transparency is slowing down progress, as researchers cannot contrast and compare different approaches to optimize them.
Despite these methodological challenges, neuromarketing carries great potential to nudge positive behavioral change, though it also carries the risk of abuse. Where one ends and the other starts will need to be clearly defined. It's time to start a public debate now to inform future laws and regulations for the neuromarketing industry, as these technologies will eventually affect us all.
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”