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. Take for example, the classic taste test. P. Read Montague of Baylor College of Medicine performed his version of the Pepsi Challenge inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine in 2004. Montague gave 67 people a blind taste test of both Coke and Pepsi, then placed his subjects in the scanner, whose magnetic field measures how active cells are by recording how much oxygen they consume for energy. After tasting each drink, all the volunteers showed strong activation of the reward areas of the brain -- which are associated with pleasure and satisfaction -- and they were almost evenly split in their preferences for the two brands. But when Montague repeated the test and told them what they were drinking, three out of four people said they preferred Coke, and their brains showed why: not only were the reward systems active, but memory regions in the medial prefrontal cortex and hippocampus also lit up. "This showed that the brand alone has value in the brain system above and beyond the desire for the content of the can," says Montague. In other words, all those happy, energetic and glamorous people drinking Coke in commercials did exactly what they were supposed to do: seeped into the brain and left associations so powerful they could even override a preference for the taste of Pepsi.
Stanford neuroscientist Brian Knutson has zeroed in on a more primitive aspect of making choices. "We come equipped to assess potentially good things and potentially bad things," he says. "There should be stuff in your brain that promotes your survival, whether you have learned those things or not -- such as being scared of the dark or the unknown." Knutson calls these anticipatory emotions, and he believes that even before the cognitive areas of the brain are brought in to assess options, these more intuitive and emotional regions are already priming the decision-making process and can foreshadow the outcome. Such primitive triggers almost certainly afforded survival advantages to our ancestors when they decided which plants to pick or which caves to enter, but Knutson surmises that vestiges of this system are at work as we make more mundane choices at the mall. There, it's the match between the value of a product and its price that triggers an anticipation of pleasure or pain.
To test his theory, Knutson and his team devised a way to mimic these same intuitive reactions in the lab. He gave subjects $20 each and, while they were in the fMRI machine, presented them with pictures of 80 products, each followed by a price. Subjects then had the option of purchasing each item on display. As they viewed products they preferred, Knutson saw activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain involved in anticipating pleasant outcomes. If, on the other hand, the subjects thought the price of these items was too high, there was increased activity in the insula -- an area involved in anticipating pain. "The idea is that if you look into people's brains right before they make certain decisions, you can get a handle on these two feelings and do a better job of predicting what they are about to do," Knutson says. "I believe anticipatory emotions not only bias but drive decision making."
All of this, of course, is whirring along at the brain's split-second pace, and as imaging technology improves, Knutson is hopeful that he and others will be able to see in even more detail the circuits in the brain activated during a decision. Already, according to Montague, these images have revealed surprising things about how the brain pares down the decision-making process by setting up shortcuts to make its analysis more efficient. To save time, the brain doesn't run through the laundry list of risks, benefits and value judgments each time. 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.
(source: Time Magazine, January 29, 2007, pp. 114-115)