Petter Kallioinen via Wikimedia Commons
As a rule, almost anything that involves the prefix neuro is probably a buzzword. Brains! They’re the key to everything! Pretty pictures of brain scans or electrical pulses can reveal the depths of the human experience! We’re even more likely to believe poor explanations of psychology when they’re accompanied by gratuitous neuroscience jargon.
Perhaps no field is buzzier than neuromarketing, a concept invented in the 1990s by Harvard psychologists and now used by companies like Google, Frito-Lay and CBS. Neuromarketers operate on the principle that simple focus groups and surveys aren’t enough to truly figure out what people want–marketing needs to tap into the subconscious parts of the brain. Marketers need to know what you want before you want it. And so neuromarketers co-opt the techniques of neuroscience–analyzing the brain’s responses to products with electroencephalography (EEG) and MRI imaging. Brain-whispering, The New York Times called it a few years ago.
Now, Matt Wall argues over at Slate that neuromarketing doesn’t produce solid data–and perhaps it never can.
Scientists use electroencephalography (EEG) to measure electric activity in the brain during some kind of task in the lab (like looking at certain kinds of images). In the last couple years, neuromarketers have embraced cheap, user-friendly EEG systems that claim to work with dry sensors, removing the need to dab messy conductive gel on someone’s head. It’s more efficient than expensive, bulky MRI machines, but it comes with a price.
The messy, long process of applying electrodes to the scalp ensures the best quality data:
And there’s often just not enough data, or sophisticated analysis, to ensure the reliability of the subsequent findings:
These technical issues could, in theory, be solved by changing the experimental design or upgrading the equipment, but Wall points out that there’s a larger issue with neuromarketing that will remain an impediment to getting any good scientific results: reverse inference.
Instead of carefully examining data between control and experimental conditions, neuromarketing studies often jump to conclusions about what a jump in something like an EEG signal mean about how the study subject is thinking or feeling.
Until more rigorous scientific standards come into play, it’s pretty hard to say what your brain really thinks about that ad campaign.
Read the whole piece here.
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