What Neuroscience Tells Us About Consumer Desire

It's easy for businesses to keep track of what we buy, but harder to figure out why. Enter a nascent field called neuromarketing, which uses the tools of neuroscience to determine why we prefer some products over others. Uma R. Karmarkar explains how raw brain data is helping researchers unlock the mysteries of consumer choice.
by Carmen Nobel

In the early 1950s, two scientists at McGill University inadvertently discovered an area of the rodent brain dubbed "the pleasure center," located deep in the nucleus accumbens. When a group of lab rats had the opportunity to stimulate their own pleasure centers via a lever-activated electrical current, they pressed the lever over and over again, hundreds of times per hour, foregoing food or sleep, until many of them dropped dead from exhaustion. Further research found pleasure centers exist in human brains, too.

“People are fairly good at expressing what they want, what they like, or even how much they will pay for an item. But they aren't very good at accessing where that value comes from, or how and when it is influenced by factors like store displays or brands.”

Most humans are a little more complicated than rats, of course. But we are largely motivated by what makes us feel good, especially when it comes to our purchasing decisions. To that end, many major corporations have begun to take special interest in how understanding the human brain can help them better understand consumers. Enter a nascent but fast-growing field called neuromarketing, which uses brain-tracking tools to determine why we prefer some products over others.

"People are fairly good at expressing what they want, what they like, or even how much they will pay for an item," says Uma R. Karmarkar, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who sports PhDs in both marketing and neuroscience. "But they aren't very good at accessing where that value comes from, or how and when it is influenced by factors like store displays or brands. [Neuroscience] can help us understand those hidden elements of the decision process."

To be sure, there is a clear difference between the goals of academia and the goals of a corporation in utilizing neuroscience. For Karmarkar, her work falls into the category of decision neuroscience, which is the study of what our brains do as we make choices. She harbors no motive other than to understand that process and its implications for behavior, and draws on concepts and techniques from neuroscience to inform her research in marketing.

For corporations, on the other hand, the science is a means to an end goal of selling more stuff. But the tools, once restricted to biomedical research, are largely the same. And Karmarkar expects brain data to play a key role in future research on consumer choice.

(In a recent HBS industry background note on neuromarketing, she discusses the techniques that have helped researchers decode secrets such as why people love artificially colored snack food and how to predict whether a pop song will be a hit or a flop.)

Tricks of the Trade

When tracking brain functions, neuroscientists generally use either electroencephalography (EEG) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology. EEG measures fluctuations in the electrical activity directly below the scalp, which occurs as a result of neural activity. By attaching electrodes to subjects' heads and evaluating the electrical patterns of their brain waves, researchers can track the intensity of visceral responses such as anger, lust, disgust, and excitement.

Karmarkar cites the example of junk-food giant Frito-Lay, which in 2008 hired a neuromarketing firm to look into how consumers respond to Cheetos, the top-selling brand of cheese puffs in the United States. Using EEG technology on a group of willing subjects, the firm determined that consumers respond strongly to the fact that eating Cheetos turns their fingers orange with residual cheese dust. In her note, Karmarkar cites an article in the August 2011 issue of Fast Company, which describes how the EEG patterns indicated "a sense of giddy subversion that consumers enjoy over the messiness of the product."

That data in hand, Frito-Lay moved ahead with an ad campaign called "The Orange Underground," featuring a series of 30-second TV spots in which the Cheetos mascot, Chester Cheetah, encourages consumers to commit subversive acts with Cheetos. (In one commercial, an airline passenger quietly sticks Cheetos up the nostrils of a snoring seatmate. Problem solved.) The campaign garnered Frito-Lay a 2009 Grand Ogilvy Award from the Advertising Research Foundation.

EEG vs. fMRI

Karmarkar notes that EEG and fMRI have different strengths and weaknesses, and that EEG has some limitations in its reach. "The cap of electrodes sits on the surface of your head, so you're never going to get to the deep areas of the brain with EEG," Karmarkar explains.

The fMRI uses a giant magnet, often 3 Teslas strong, to track the blood flow throughout the brain as test subjects respond to visual, audio, or even taste cues. The technology has its own logistical limitations. Running an fMRI scanner costs researchers up to $1,000 per hour, and studies often use 20-30 subjects, Karmarkar says. And while EEG lets subjects move around during testing, fMRI requires them to lie very still inside a machine that can be intimidating.

"This is a sophisticated piece of medical equipment that exerts a very strong magnetic field at all times, and it's important to be very careful around it," Karmarkar says. "For example, you cannot take metal into a magnet room!"

“Expressions of happiness in some Eastern cultures are expressed as a sense of calm or peace, whereas in some Western cultures, happiness means jumping around with joy and excitement."

But fMRI is invaluable to neuroscience and neuromarketing in that it gives researchers a view into the aforementioned pleasure center. "The more desirable something is, the more significant the changes in blood flow in that part of the brain," Karmarkar says. "Studies have shown activity in that brain area can predict the future popularity of a product or experience."

In her note, Karmarkar discusses research by Emory University's Gregory Berns and Sara Moore, who connected the dots between neural activity and success in the music industry. In a seminal lab experiment, teenagers listened to a series of new, relatively unknown songs while lying inside an fMRI machine. The researchers found that the activity within the adolescents' pleasure centers correlated with whether a song achieved eventual commercial success. The OneRepublic song Apologize performed especially well in both the brain scans and the market.

"Importantly, Berns and Moore also asked their original study participants how much they liked the songs they heard, but those responses were not able to predict sales," Karmarker's note states, illustrating the marketing value of subconscious cerebral data.

Neuromarketing can provide important but complex data to companies that target a global audience. While product testing may provide similar neural responses in American and Asian subjects, for instance, the marketing implications may be very different.

"Expressions of happiness in some Eastern cultures are expressed as a sense of calm or peace, whereas in some Western cultures, happiness means jumping around with joy and excitement," Karmarkar explains. "So you might get two totally different fMRI results that actually mean the same thing—or you may have two totally different stimuli create the desired effect of profound happiness, but for different reasons. If you get an excited effect in an Eastern market, it may not be a good outcome, even though that was the effect you wanted in a Western market. On the other hand, a sense of peace might be misconstrued as a failure."

Valid Concerns

For businesses looking to enlist the services of a neuromarketing company, she advises watching out for consultanting firms that claim to offer such services but don't really have the technology or expertise to back up the claim. Rather, look for a company whose employees have a healthy, skeptical respect for neuroscience.

"The rubric for picking a good [firm] is making sure it was started by a scientist, or has a good science advisory board," Karmarkar says. "This is a field where scientists are very, very skeptical, and we should be. It's easy to feel like you've discovered some big, important truth when you see that the brain has done something that correlates with behavior. And it's just as easy to overstate our conclusions."

For consumers, the idea of giving advertisers additional insight into the subconscious mind might prompt privacy concerns. But Karmarkar says that the research is more about understanding brain waves, not controlling them.

"It's similar to the concerns about genetics," she explains. "People wonder, now that we can map the genome, are we going to manipulate the genome? I think it's a valid and important question to ask. But I don't think it's the direction that companies should take or that academics are taking."

She adds, though, that we need to keep in mind that advertisers have been successfully controlling our brains, to some extent, since long before the existence of EEG or fMRI technology.

"Imagine Angelina Jolie biting into an apple," she says. "It's the juiciest apple ever. She's licking her lips. There's juice running down her chin. Now if I spend some time setting up that scenario and then follow up by asking you to tell me how much you like Mac computers, I promise you that you'll rate them more highly than you would have if I hadn't just talked about how great that apple was for Angelina Jolie. So, yes, I just used your brain to manipulate you. Sex sells, and it has since the dawn of time. It sells because it engages that pleasurable reward center of your brain. As academics, neuroscience just helps us to understand how."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • Biju Dominic
    • CEO, FinalMile Consulting
    There is much more to the science of Cognitive Neuroscience than fMRI/EEG based testing of television commercials and acceptance of new products( leave aside the fact that many neurologists question the veracity of consumer research based on these methods). It is a travesty of opportunity if learning from this fundamental science is not used to develop far deeper understanding of human behavior and thereby solve many of the fundamental problems of our society. Unique solutions to problems like deaths due to trespassing of rail tracks, road accidents, accidents at unmanned railway level crossings, obesity, medication non-adherence etc can be developed using learning from Cognitive Neuroscience
    • Rugeirn
    • Drienborough
    There is one area of neuromarketing research that is blatant by its absence: the lack of any effort to educate consumers about how marketers will be manipulating them, and how they can make themselves aware of it and resist it. Isn't it amazing how no one thinks that's worth funding?
    • John Daus
    • President, DigiFutures
    Thank you for highlighting the differences between the Eastern and Western mind sets. DigiFutures is just beginning the journey of exploring the state of the neuromarketing industry for potential productization and I find your article right on target. Best of luck with your research.
    • Tom Castelloe
    • CEO, thebraintree.com
    I do think corporations today should have a strong science advisory board, or access to research data and researchers themselves. This match up is what The Braintree has been exploring, and I believe that there will be positive results from educating the public on how their brains actually work. Finally, the ability to outsource some of this cognitive neuroscience work should prove helpful for all involved. Thanks, and good luck with your research!
    • Charles H. Green
    • Founder/CEO, Trusted Advisor Associates
    I'm struck by Karmarkar's last sentence: "As academics, neuroscience just helps us to understand how."

    As a former philosophy major, the notion of "understanding" isn't as obvious as it seems. It seems to me that a lot what neuro-fill-in-the-blank promises is precisely this "understanding."

    But if I translate an English sentence into French, we would not call that "understanding," we'd call it translation into a parallel language. If I propose a toast at a wedding, I could describe it as I just did, or I could describe it as 'lifting my arm with a glass in it to execute a social convention,' or I could describe it as 'activating the muscles in my arms through a set of chemical signals transmitted through my brain to the neurons...' and so forth.

    All those, I would argue, are not explanations: they are translations into an alternative mode of description. And that, I think, is very much what most neuro-science does.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that. That's how we get medicines, or in the case of this article, refining things that the conscious mind can't as easily get at. But again, those are rifle-shot examples of where one language is better at a particular task than another language.

    For the most part, "A rose by any other name would smell the same." The challenge to the neuro-people, I would argue, is to explain why their explanations explain very much.

    A robust piece of explanation would do several things, which Aristotle enumerated more than a few years ago.

    --It might place something in a broader context, as in "The Serb-Croat conflict has its roots in times of Constantine;"

    --it might suggest a causal relationship, as in "I raised my hand in toast because it had become evident that everyone would hate me forever if I didn't;"

    --it might suggest motives, as in "socio-biology explains why animals herd together in terms of species perpetuation."

    It seems to me much of neuro-science doesn't aspire to such terms of understanding; it remains largely content with translating things which had previously been written in another "language." Sometimes one language is preferable to another, and where useful, we should use neuro-language. But we should not confuse this with "understanding."
    I found this article highly informative and interesting.Would like to know more on this. I have done my specialization in Marketing & Advertising. Presently I also train students on product development & market survey tols and techniques.
    Thanks and regards
    • Anonymous
    I'm note sure PepsiCo would like to have its Frito-Lay division being called a "junk food giant".
    • David Lindsay
    • Tutor/Lecturer, Edinburgh Napier Business School
    Fascinating article which raises a whole raft of issues, both ethical and administrative! Puts a new slant on the "Behavioural complex in Marketing" . For decades we have employed the services of psychologists and behaviour experts to determine the right "mix" for a brand or product, now it appears that we definitely have entered the new world of behaviour genetics -attempting to uncover an individual's predispositions almost from birth. Will he/she have a sweet tooth? Is she/he predisposed to dependancy on alcohol/cigarettes/drugs et al...now we have a seemingly serious attempt to employ scientific support to hedonismic tendancies which may result in increased buying behaviour of a particular range of products/services. As far back as 1981 Keith Williams in his CIM [UK Chartered Institute of Marketing] book "Behavioural Aspects of Marketing" offered a seminal overview of this "new" art addin
    g "behavioural analysis must be a topic of major concern to the marketer" - following in the foosteps of Vance Packard and Edward Bernays ,but in this instance we have begun to involve medical research and EEG/fMRI equipment which is not only very expensive to run also requires highly trained personnel. The question is this: could we not have reached the same conclusion[s] about the consumer without the use of this quite intrusive form of analysis? Predicting behaviour is at the centre of Personality Psychology and with the employment of adapted psychometrics are able to determine with reasonably accuracy how an individual will respond/behave in a given situation . Is the profit motive not distorting our rationale here ? Is it ethical ? Or have Frito-Lay justly and rightly decided to employ whatever means are available to predict more accurately the "feelings" of their current and potential customers ?
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Neuroscience does tell us about consumer desire.However, these techniques are still not being used widely despite the scientific research proving their useful role in arriving at determining customers' marketing prefernces vie EEG and fMRI. Only large companies may be able to spend time and resources to sample out users of some of their key producls and involve them in such tests for future long-term planning to continue/improve upon what is already developed. Even there a monopolist is unlikely to go for this.
    Seems more theoretical than practical especially in less advanced countries where attention to R&D is generally low.
    • raja
    I enjoyed reading this article. It is a strange coincidence that I watched the said research in BBC knowledge on the rodents and followed by reserarch on some people and happen to read the article the following day. It is quite interesting with the various info shared with an average reader like me. I do have a concern about the misuse of this knowledge by some greedy corporates. To cite an example a small excerpt from NYT below:

    The First Amendment to the Constitution, which tops our Bill of Rights, guarantees -- theoretically, at least -- things we all care about. So much is here: freedom of religion, of the press, of speech, the right to assemble and more. Yet it's stealthily and incredibly being invoked to safeguard the nearly unimpeded "right" of a handful of powerful corporations to market junk food to children.

    Is there a danger of some greedy big corporates abusing the research findings?
    • Srini
    • Director, HP
    Very interesting article. Few interesting takeaways:
    1. The oriental perspective vis-a-vis western perspective.
    2. The ability to actually use this science to predict the success of a product or otherwise.
    3. Of course the big concern - on would people start using it to manipulate...

    But definitely interesting to research and look at the positive benefits of this.
    • J Polichak
    • Cognitive Scientist, Curmudgeonation
    Seems that some of those commenting should write their own articles.

    This is a piece of journalism, focusing on the expertise and advice of one researcher, and does that well.

    It is not an exhaustive exploration of all possible uses of cognitive neuroscience, analysis of the distribution of funding for cognitive neuroscience, nor the musings upon the nature of knowledge by a former philosophy major.

    I can assure you that all of your issues are being discussed and elaborated upon in various publications if you care to do a little research.

    And my Croatian ancestors did not arrive in the region that is currently called Croatia until 200-500 years after Constantine died, with a similarly fuzzy time of arrival for the Serbs. Both likely from the region that is now southeastern Poland and neighboring parts of Ukraine and Belarus, but there is one Greek-language tablet from the 3rd century suggesting that the Croats may have lived between the Dneipr and the Don at that time.

    But the precise ethnicity of an individual of south Slavic origin was also a fuzzy concept depending on the political context. For example, my distant relative Nedeljko Čabrinović, the member of the Black Hand who threw the bomb at Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand that missed its target prior to Gavrilo Princip's successful shooting, claimed at various times in his short life to be Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian. It seems the important fact was that one was not Germany, Hungarian, or Turkish at the time.

    So I am not quite sure how the Serb-Croat conflict has any meaningful roots in the time of Constantine.
    • Dr Michael Bates
    • Principal, 1 Place Patent Attorneys + Solicitors
    Neuroscience also provides insight as to why some items can be selected to:
    1. be perceived without the expense of marketing; and
    2. compel a viewer to react in an involuntary manner.

    This is a very interesting area when considering the creation of a brand, since the time & the expenditure of promotion can mean success or otherwise.

    The use of individuals with synaesthesia is currently used in some areas of marketing.

    Individuals with synaesthesia in the form of a psychological sensitivity to symbols use their dispositions to:
    1. screen trademarks for big corporations as suitable or otherwise; and
    2. detect symbols that are indicative roots of possible future trends.

    We wrote an article on this at: http://www.1place.com.au/1P/blog1p/?p=2664
    • Charles H. Green
    • Founder/CEO, Trusted Advisor Associates
    Re reader Polichak's delightful sidebar:

    I agree completely the article wasn't intended to be philosophical in nature. Then again, the nature of philosophy is to look at ordinary conversation and make inferences about meaning based upon it. This article is but one of many examples where "meaning" and "understanding" are used in casual ways, suggesting something more than what is actually delivered.

    Is that relevant? Absolutely. We all benefit from clarity of language in whatever field we work.

    Re Serb/Croat history, I meant that as a whimsical example of logic, not one of history - I'll defer to Mr. Polichak on the history.

    The material for the example was on my mind from reading "Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, a History," by James Carroll, which contains this passage:

    "In 285 A.D., Diocletian divided the empire in half, assigning the more vital and less conflicted East to himself...The thrust of his dividing line, running south from the Danube, is still more or less visible today on the much disputed border between the Roman Catholic territories of Croatia and the Orthodox territories of Serbia."

    Diocletian later appointed as his successor Constantius -- the father of Constantine.

    It's quite possible this passage refers only to geography and not to cultural history - again I'll defer to Mr. Polichak in that respect.

    Regardless, the logical point holds - when we speak of "understanding" or of "explaining," we look for things like historical context, and not simply re-translation into another lingo.
    • Peter Kermond
    • General Manager, M.I.A
    It will be an interesting tool to better describe and delineate personalities. i.e looking at a smilar described pleasure, what is the variance in f MRI data. In other words we might be able to use this to chart different personalities that that been previously described by adjectives such as " taciturn" or "bubbly"
    • N. Coppedge
    As regards general marketing, I would say that some subtle products are under-rated, and could be promoted with simple surface approaches.
    • Prof Dr N Chandrasekhar
    • Professor, University of Applied Sciences-Ingolstadt
    An interesting article but as a teacher of Consumer Behavior I 'unwillingly' disagree on certain key observations.
    1. The very fact that a subject is under observation will cause unnatural or forced behavior thereby yielding incorrect results. I have heard and seen patients visiting doctors office ' faint' on seeing a scalpel. This leads to the belief 'what would happen' to consumers who wear ' headgear to take measurements off them. Will the readings so obtained be 'facts'.
    2.The difference between 'goals of Academia and the goals of a corporation'. The academia I assume is trying to unravel 'what makes you buy' which we transmit to 'students' who are expected to be part of 'profit' making organizations! Not much of a difference at least in the end goals I presume. Yes, the methodology may vary.
    3.On the subject of 'Expressions of Happiness'....I am afraid I have to disagree in totality unless one is addressing a specific target segment like a set of 'Yogis'. Here I assume we are concerned with the 'average consumer'. Eastern cultures are 'high context' and very very expressive and will so no inhibitions about being happy which is very much in contrast with the 'low context' Western Cultures' which is very subdued.
    • Mackenzie
    • Creative Bube Tube
    Very insightful article. It explains consumer behaviour in a very easy to understand why, while still holding onto the scientific explanations. Well done! Advertising agencies should take notes!
    • Mujeeb Rashid
    • Managing Director, Mitchells Fruit Farms Limited
    The very insightful article as well as the all the comments posted so far to express different perspectives on the subject seem to have initiated an invaluable debate.
    Differing arguments on the use of such neuroscience based measurements in future to influence/activate desired human response to sensory stimuli by vested interests e.g., Governments as well as Corporations will surely help guiding the same in to a positive rather than a negative direction.
    So will including in this debate the use of Chemical Additives in foods to activate pleasure centers in the brain.
    • GSN Raju
    • Executive Director, Service Industry
    if we go further deeply in to the subject. All our desires are merely desires for the sake of desire.
    • praveen mohan
    @charles green, i would say it is not translation but reflection. And reflections are as true {or as false?} as the object itself.
    • Brandon
    • intern, In2itive Search
    This sounds both disturbing and interesting to me. It's interesting because scientists are figuring out more about how the human mind works.

    This technology being used for market research though just bugs me for some reason, even if we are already being manipulated by advertising. I still don't like the idea of something such as the music study that was mentioned taking off in the music industry. Certain products no longer being released because a machine said that the study group didn't like them? What if it's a country song they're testing, and their subjects happen to like something a bit faster?

    Different people enjoy different things, right? The same way that the Middle East, and Western cultures think of joy differently. Different people in the same market will find pleasure in different things. For example Frito-Lay's study found that people enjoyed the part I personally hate the most about Cheetos (I know, one person doesn't mean anything in a study).