What's the Best Way to Find Out what Consumers Really Feel?

Those of us involved in marketing and exploring how consumers make the decisions they do should always pay attention to new approaches and constructs. If we didn't, we would still be wandering cities, clipboards in hand, conducting man-on-the street interviews. So, I am extremely interested in the growth and impact of neuroscience on marketing research.

In my effort to get up to speed in this area I have found Roger Dooley's website and blog particularly useful. He covers the breadth of the topic although there are fairly frequent references to those who question the approach, labeled "alarmists." And, it is true that there is a good deal of overheated reactions to the idea of marketers probing our brains for ways to make us buy products without realizing we want them.

But, there is reasonable questioning of neuromarketing, and in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, "Brain Scan Overload" by Jonah Lehrer is an excellent example. He focuses on the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, a device used to provide a picture of the brain as it reacts to different stimuli. He points out several ways in which the use of the device in such research might be questionable:

  • It uses blood flow as a surrogate for the activity of neurons in the brain.

  • There are complex algorithms that separate the noise from the signal. The result can be a simple picture of what might be a very dense psychological state, such as happiness.

  • Various areas of the brain play a role in multiple emotions. So, the insula plays a role in love, disgust, and bodily pain. Lehrer points to research that associated a spike in activity in that region of the brain with love for the iPhone. Why not disgust or pain?

But at the very end of his article, Lehrer makes a point about neuroscience that gives me pause.

"What's worse, the very fact that we're looking at a brain scan seems to inhibit our critical thinking. Deena Skolnick Weisberg, a psychologist at Temple University, has demonstrated that merely referencing fMRI research can bias the evaluation of scientific papers.

"When she gave neuroscience students and ordinary adults a few examples of obviously flawed scientific explanations, people were consistently able to find the flaws. However, when these same explanations were prefaced with the phrase 'Brain scans indicate,' both the students and adults became much less critical."

Neuromarketing research seems to be another effort to find research methods that give "the answer," unchallenged or mediated by thought and analysis. Marketers make decisions influenced by research. Research helps provide understanding of consumer behavior. But, when the method is the answer, subtlety and flexibility are lost. Ultimately, a sensitive marketer can learn a good deal and make successful decisions by listening directly to consumers.

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