Brain Argument

One of my favorite chapters in How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer is The Brain is an Argument. In this chapter, Lehrer highlights how complex our decision-making process really is, and how competing options battle for supremacy.

Introspection is rarely a great way to examine human behavior, but I’m sure that like me, you’ve been in a restaurant, and, after studying the menu, found yourself unable to decide between a few interesting selections. The salmon sounds good, and would be the healthiest choice. The restaurant, though, is known for its excellent steaks, and the filet looks tempting. To further confound the issue, a somewhat more exotic rack of lamb is on the menu – not particularly healthy, but a dish that you might not encounter at another restaurant for a while. Then again, the lamb dish is a few dollars more expensive than the filet… that strikes you as a bit hight, is it worth it?

At this point, your brain is at war with itself. Different interests – the salmon would be healthy, but might not the steak taste better? And surely your arteries could handle one 8-ounce filet… the lamb might be even tastier, and in your area it’s hard to find. You can’t remember the last time you had tender lamb chops… Meanwhile, “buying pain” kicks in, arguing for the salmon, the cheapest of the three dishes, and even suggesting you take another look at the chicken breast, costing just half of what the filet does.

George Loewenstein of CMU and Brian Knutson of Stanford actually observed this process using fMRI brain scans. They showed subjects pictures of items they could buy, and then showed them a price. Depending on how low or high the price was compared to the perceived value, different brain areas lit up. High prices activated the brain’s insula, often associated with pain. Low prices excited the prefrontal cortex, which “did the math” and liked what it saw. As Lehrer notes,

You don’t look at the electric grill or box of chocolates and perform an explicit cost-benefit analysis. Instead, you outsource much of this calculation to your emotional brain and then rely on relative amounts of pleasure vs. pain to tell you what to purchase. (During many of the decisions, the rational prefrontal cortex was largely a spectator, standing idly by while the NAcc and insula argued with each other.)

Marketers need to keep the “brain as argument” concept in mind, and bolster their case by appealing to one or more key decision-making factors. Most importantly, marketers have to realize that much of the decision-making process is carried out by the emotional parts of the brain. Reams of facts and figures won’t compete with sensory appeals, stories, emotional pitches, and other techniques that will be processed not by the prefrontal cortex but by more primitive parts of our brain – in most cases, the latter are the real “deciders.”

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