Building a foundation for consumer neuroscience

Updated: Aug 24


How should we use neuroscience in business? More specifically, how can we use the tools and insights from neuroscience to better understand, measure, and improve consumers’ experiences?


While I did my PhD in neurobiology and neuroimaging around 15 years ago, I was struck by the frustratingly low level of scientific literacy that was used in business, especially when it came to the use of neuroscience insights and tools.


Too often I encountered people who believed that our brains were divided into creative and logical halves, into three layers frozen in evolutionary time, and those who thought we actually only used 10% of our brain capacity.


The secret proprietary sauce

But even worse, I found that companies were offering services that had virtually no scientific footing and validation. Their extreme claims could only be surpassed by the abysmal lack of even fundamental scientific support for their claims.


To make matters worse, companies would hide behind self-proclaimed proprietary IP rights, never to release their so-called metrics or findings for closer scrutiny. A fundamental break with scientific legitimacy.


Lingering challenges and hopes

Over the past many years, things have definitely changed to the better. Scientific papers have shifted from skepticism towards this emerging new discipline to an expanding weekly knowledge, companies are showing an increased reliance on scientifically published materials, and buyers of neuromarketing solutions show an increased demand for documentation, due diligence, and scrutiny.

(...) many scientific results have proven to be unreliable and need further scrutiny.

So there is definitely hope -- but much work still lies ahead. Matters are not eased by the fact that even many scientific results have proven to be unreliable and need further scrutiny. The so-called replication crisis has hit both the psychological sciences and neuroscience hard.


Today, we see that studies are providing severe criticism of methods such as facial coding and Galvanic Skin Response on the grounds that results are hard to replicate, calculation methods are not sufficiently well described, and that even the theoretical foundation of the methods is questionable. There is much work ahead!


The road ahead

But for a true scientific mind, this should be seen as a golden age of opportunities. When many people might think that everything they have been told seems to be called into question, we should not despair! We still know the fundamentals:

  • Self-reports are severely limited resources for getting a complete understanding of why we behave in the way we do

  • The brain makes quick, emotional responses that drive choice

  • Brain measures of emotional and cognitive responses can be tracked reliably and with a razor sharp resolution, allowing us to diagnose responses as they unfold

  • Visual attention can readily be measured through eye-tracking methods, allowing us to quantify who see what and for how long

Now, what is amiss is how things are documented. When I started Neurons, I made a few important decisions. Many at the time thought that it was a stupid decision, but time has proven that this was exactly what the industry needed, and fortunately, others have done the same as we chose to do, including:

  • An open book model -- all methods and metrics have to be grounded in scientific journals (and if possible, we will contribute to this knowledge)

  • Transparency is key -- clients who pay for studies will have full access to all data, where they can run double tests of what we have done for them

  • Textbook science -- all methods and metrics need to rely on well-established knowledge from neuroscience and neuropsychology -- experimental metrics should be classified as “experimental”

The foundation for neuromarketing & consumer neuroscience

This background has brought me into many interesting discussions and meetings. And from these discussions, it has become obvious to me that we need a foundation for our work, academic and applied researchers alike. During one notable closed-door meeting in New York City about a year ago, a group based on some of the leading consumer neuroscience vendors and Fortune 50 clients were openly discussing the needs to make the industry move forward. While some of this work will hopefully be published soon, I decided to write an opinion article about this to nail down my own ideas.


Now, the paper is finally out in the Journal of Advertising Research. The title is “Building a Foundation for Neuromarketing And Consumer Neuroscience Research: How Researchers Can Apply Academic Rigor To the Neuroscientific Study of Advertising Effects” and the abstract reads as follows:

Since its modern inception about two decades ago, the use of neuroscience tools and insights in studying advertising has grown an increasing prominence in the researcher's toolbox. As a branch of applied neuroscience, labels such as “neuromarketing” and “consumer neuroscience” often are used interchangeably, and this emerging field suffers from many inconsistencies. Methodological differences, conceptual inconsistencies, a lack of systematic validation of neuroscience-based metrics, and questionable business practices are all symptoms of a discipline that is in need of rigor and maturation. The goal of this article is to suggest a basic foundation for the use of neuroscience and related methods in studying advertising effects. Three main elements are suggested: a distinction among basic, translational, and applied research; a conceptual clarification; and a framework for the validation of neuroscience-based metrics.

Basically, the main suggestion of the paper is that we need at least three main types of progress to achieve a full foundation for consumer neuroscience and neuromarketing:

  • Categorizing the type of research -- As a first step, we should be better at telling each other what type of science we’re doing. Are we studying the underlying mechanisms of consumer choice (basic research), are we suggesting new solutions based on basic research (translational research), or are we applying the methods from neuroscience to study consumption-related questions (applied research)?

  • Clarifying the concepts -- What do we really mean when we talk about “emotions”, “memory” and “attention”? After all, we do know generally what we mean, but when we want to be precise, we need to use a more scientifically minded approach. In neuropsychology, “emotions” typically refers to changes in bodily (and brain-related) states, while in market research and business we often hear that people talk about emotions as something we feel. In neuropsychology, emotions are bodily responses (mostly subconscious) while “feelings” refer to the experience of an emotional state. This semantic clarification can be crucial for us to understand what different results mean. In my experience, people also get amazing new ideas when they ground their work on neuroscience-based definitions.

  • Ensuring scientific validity and reliability -- This is probably the most contentious yet most important piece of work that lies ahead of us. I simply don’t buy it when companies say that their metric is proprietary and that clients need to trust them and their science. I don’t. When you have a vested interest in something, your view on your own metrics can be shewed, even if you are not trying to be. The only way forward is to only focus on methods and metrics that are scientifically documented in top-tier scientific journals. I often put it this way: would you accept taking a pill that a medical company claimed that their internal studies had shown to be effective yet safe? Or would you prefer that the medication was tested and vetted by independent experts? I guess the latter, and better still: for such testing to happen, the medical company would never have to disclose their “secret ingredients.” Just in the same way, neuro companies need to get a grip and document their metric through scientific journals.

My strongest hope is that this paper can start a debate, be used for others to build on, be criticized, whatever! As long as it can make a dent, I am happy. I strongly feel that this is what we need today, instead of yet another round of sensationalist claims, amazing yet undocumented methods or metrics.


And if you’re interested in contributing to this, remember that you can submit a paper to my co-edited special issue in Frontiers in Neuroscience and Frontiers in Psychology!

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