Brain Scans Predict Buying Behavior

Only a day ago, in our post Neuro-Hype, we lamented the abundance of brain scan hype and the dearth of research that examines real purchase behavior. As if on cue, Carnegie Mellon University released Researchers Use Brain Scans To Predict When People Will Buy. While we haven’t perused the full study details, which appear in Neuron in Neural Predictors of Purchases, the work seems to be some of the most useful and exciting neuromarketing and neuroeconomics research published to date:

Twenty-six adults participated in the study, in which they were given $20 to spend on a series of products that would be shipped to them. If they made no purchases, they would be able to keep the money. The products and their prices appeared on a computer screen that the participants viewed while lying in an fMRI scanner. The researchers found that when the participants were presented with the products, a subcortal brain region known as the nucleus accumbens that is associated with the anticipation of pleasure was activated. When the subjects were presented with prices that were excessive, two things happened: the brain region known as the insula was activated and a part of the brain associated with balancing gains versus losses – the medial prefrontal cortex – was deactivated.

Furthermore, by studying which regions were activated, the authors were able to successfully predict whether the study participants would decide to purchase each item. Activations of the regions associated with product preference and with weighing gains and losses indicated that a person would decide to purchase a product. In contrast, when the region associated with excessive prices was activated participants chose not to buy a product.

The researchers who authored the paper are Scott Rick and George Loewenstein of the Department of Social and Decisions Sciences at Carnegie Mellon; Brian Knutson and G. Elliott Wimmer of the Department of Psychology at Stanford; and Drazen Prelec at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

It seems likely that this work will spark some creative thinking. The Market Psychology blog speculates in Excited about a Good Deal that Warren Buffet and other value investors may like stocks when their medial prefrontal cortex is activated. For neuromarketers, this looks like a ground-breaking study that will help establish the basis for fMRI-based evaluation of ads, price points, and other marketing variables. (We think it’s doubtful that Wal-Mart will install brain scanners as suggested by the Life of Learning blog. ;)) We’ll report further on this work after we study the paper and gather more details.


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— who has written 985 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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2 responses to "Brain Scans Predict Buying Behavior" — Your Turn


JB Conn 9. January 2007 at 12:02 pm

> “For neuromarketers, this looks like a ground-breaking study that will help establish the basis for fMRI-based evaluation of ads, price points, and other marketing variables.”

I am not convinced of this yet… fMRI is (i) immensely expensive and (ii) very clinical, i.e., a sterile environment in which you lay down in a big machine and look at pictures, rather than a comfortable/realistic environment.

If the theories hold, I think it will take a more widely applicable, tremendously less expensive, and ideally portable, technology/instrument platform to make brain scanning broadly utilized for these kinds of studies.


n2suntzu 22. February 2007 at 2:56 pm

I agree with JB Conn fMRI poses multiple barriers for widespread adoption at this time.

However, I do believe the methods and learnings from those studies involving fMRI will become the next “Six Sigma”. Moreover, the methods and learnings will likely spread as heuristics taking the form of other marketing tactics.



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