Neuromarketing firms claim that brain scanning technology can be used to evaluate consumers’ responses to products and predict which ones they prefer, but so far most of these claims are hugely exaggerated.
New research published in the journal Nature Communications adding some hope to the neuromarketing hype, by showing that the brain activity shared by small groups of people in response to film clips can accurately predict how popular those clips will be among larger groups.
Ten years ago, Uri Hasson and his colleagues recruited five participants and used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan their brains while each one watched the same 30-minute clip of Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. They noticed that the film produced remarkably similar patterns of brain activity in all the participants, synchronising the activity across multiple regions, such that their brains “ticked collectively” while they viewed it.
The researchers went on to show that films differ in their ability to induce this shared brain activity, with the more engaging ones producing a greater degree of synchrony, and more recently others have shown that the stereoscopic effects used in 3D films make viewing more enjoyable by creating a more immersive experience.
The new study, led by Jacek Dmochowski of City College of New York, builds on this earlier work. Dmochowski and his colleagues showed 16 participants scenes from the pilot episode of The Walking Dead, together with 10 commercials that were first aired during the SuperBowl championship, while recording their brain waves with electroencephalography (EEG).
The researchers also used official television viewing figures and publicly available data from Facebook and Twitter to gauge how popular each clip was at the time it was first shown. As in earlier studies of shared brain activity, they found that some of the clips produced a greater degree of synchronised brain activity in the participants that others.
Remarkably, though, the participants’ shared brain activity accurately predicted audience reactions to each at the time they were aired, with the most popular scenes and commercials producing the greatest degree of brain synchronisation in the participants.
Thus, the extent of shared brain activity within the small group of participants was closely linked to the collective behaviour of a much larger group of people, suggesting that brain scanning technology could eventually be used to predict peoples’ reactions to a forthcoming film, their product preferences, or perhaps even how they might vote in an upcoming election.
“I’m generally sceptical of claims about the application of neuroscience to marketing, which are often made by ‘neuro’ startups with little scientific evidence” says Yukiyasu Kamitani of the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, “but I think this study ... [with its] well designed experiments and sophisticated statistical methods ... provides solid evidence that neural measurement can be useful for the prediction of mass preference.”
Although the researchers also asked the participants to rate how much they liked each of the clips, they did not determine how each individual’s brain activity is linked to popularity. And it’s still not clear why the more popular clips produced greater synchrony across the participants’ brains, but one possibility is that we favour stimuli that produce a more stereotyped brain response that is shared by others.