Neuro-Alarmism at Popular Mechanics

It’s Halloween, so Popular Mechanics must want to scare its readers. The magazine has thrown fuel on the fire of neuro-alarmism by running a November issue cover story by Jeff Wise talking about “digital thought police” and filled with frightening prospects of obligatory brain scans in criminal cases, fMRI police interrogations, and manipulative neuromarketing. The story even manages to imply that fMRI studies might have a place next to polygraph tests in the “junk science” category. The neuromarketing discussion is dated, but thankfully brief:

Since 2001, several companies have sprung up offering to decode thoughts for the benefit of retailers. One pioneering firm, The BrightHouse Institute for Thought Sciences, in Atlanta, claims to be the first neuromarketing research firm to land a Fortune 500 client, though it wouldn’t identify the company.

Consumer advocates worry that corporations will use fMRI to hone ever more insidiously effective marketing campaigns. In 2004, the executive director of Commercial Alert, a group co-founded by Ralph Nader, sent a letter to members of the U.S. Senate committee that oversees interstate commerce, noting that marketers were using fMRI – not to heal the sick but rather to probe the human psyche for the purpose of influencing it – in a democracy such as ours, should anyone have such power to manipulate the behavior of the rest of us? [From http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/research/4226614.html]

Unfortunately, there’s little balance in the article. One redeeming feature: it’s not until the bottom of the second page that Wise works in the obligatory “Orwellian” reference.

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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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