Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Are we conscious or unconscious consumers?

What if I put you in a brain scanner for a few minutes and told you to stare at a black square, then I looked at your neural activity, and then I told you: “You might as well stop fighting those hidden urges. Go out and splurge on that 77’ Pinto station wagon you’ve wanted all these years.”

Would you glare at me as if I were some kind of mad scientist turned psychic-wannabe? Or would you nod in embarrassment because you read about a study that was recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience showing that your neural responses to unattended products determine what you want to buy?

In the study, John-Dylan Haynes and colleagues examined brain regions that were activated with fMRI in two groups of male subjects who participated in different visual tasks. In the first group, 17 participants had their brains scanned as they viewed images of cars while actively evaluating and rating each car’s attractiveness. In the second group, 15 participants were scanned as they engaged in a visual fixation task while images of cars popped up on the screen outside their focus of attention. After scanning, the subjects were asked whether they were willing to purchase each car that was shown to them. The researchers found that decisions about purchasing could be predicted by brain activity equally well in both groups of subjects.

The results suggest that our brains may unconsciously evaluate products when we’re not attending to them. This is quite interesting as the study provides insights to consciousness and decision-making. Proponents of neuromarketing have been circulating and praising this study because they suggest it brings us closer to using fMRI to study advertising and marketing strategies (a topic I previously wrote about).

However, the study doesn’t necessarily show that our decisions are influenced by unattended, subliminal stimuli. Instead it might show that we re-evaluate unconscious images that are images we have already consciously evaluated. In fact, the subjects in the study reported that before the experiment they were familiar with 85-87% of the cars they were shown. We can’t conclude, then, that flashing products as in subliminal advertising affects our buying choices.

So how does this study help neuromarketing? New Scientist reports that Haynes says this kind of approach might be particularly useful for inferring people's opinions of products they would be reluctant to admit to buying (although he emphasises that he is unwilling to promote neuromarketing for this purpose).

It still remains to be seen, however, whether fMRI can reveal hidden information that cannot be determined from conventional marketing surveys. Perhaps Haynes’ study contributes more to our understanding of consciousness and decision-making than it does to our understanding of selling products.

Tusche A, Bode S, & Haynes JD (2010). Neural responses to unattended products predict later consumer choices. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 30 (23), 8024-31 PMID: 20534850


  1. It might be that these neural responses are related to some sub-conscious perceptual process (such as those that are always involved in monitoring our peripheral vision, or the background noise at a party) in both cases - ie., that even though the high-attention condition showed an increase in willingness to buy, the important process is actually always subconscious and simply related to a sort of "perceptual familiarity." Just my (heavily armchair) two cents.

    Also, it might mean that you have to target your subliminal marketing, is all. With facebook already selling very accurately-targeted ad spots, it can't be too far fetched to only show subliminal car ads to gear heads.

  2. I guess the researchers just have shown once again we tend to see patterns everywhere. Setting aside the issue that an fMRI is just a computer model and likely to be wrong as any other model, the conclusions even when accepting the validity of the data is farfetched to say the least. All it shows to me is that consciousness is vastly overrated. That we live in a virtual world created by our brains and consciousness is as such just a immensely redacted version of actual events put together in a timeframe.