Brain Scans Top Surveys


What’s more accurate than asking people to predict their behavior? According to a new study at UCLA, the answer is, “Scan their brains.” This may not come as a surprise to those engaged in neuromarketing research, but the newly published research is one step in the process of validating brain scan techniques as a market research tool capable of being more accurate than traditional methods.

“There is a very long history within psychology of people not being very good judges of what they will actually do in a future situation,” said the study’s senior author, Matthew Lieberman, a UCLA professor of psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. “Many people ‘decide’ to do things but then don’t do them.”

The new study by Lieberman and lead author Emily Falk, who earned her doctorate in psychology from UCLA this month, shows that increased activity in a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex among individuals viewing and listening to public service announcement slides on the importance of using sunscreen strongly indicated that these people were more likely to increase their use of sunscreen the following week, even beyond the people’s own expectations. [From UCLA Newsroom – Neuroscientists can predict your behavior better than you can by Stuart Wolpert.]

In this experiment, subjects listened to a recorded public service announcement and viewed slides about
the importance of sunscreen. The researchers monitored their brain activity using fMRI. Remarkably, they were able to predict an increase in sunscreen use with about 75% accuracy vs. less than 50% for the subjects’ own predictions.

They began by testing ten subjects and using computer modeling to develop their predictive algorithm. Then, the researchers predicted the behavior of ten different subjects. The subjects were shuffled in different ways to build a larger data set. The work will be published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Predicting consumer behavior using traditional market research tools like surveys, focus groups, interviews, and so on has always been problematic. Sometimes people may provide answers they think the questioner will like or will make them “look good.” (Controversial candidates often get more votes than predicted by pre-election polls.) Often, though, people are just not very good at accurately describing how they might behave in the future.

We’ll never be completely successful at predicting what people will do days or weeks later, but this UCLA study suggests that looking at the activity in our brains may be significantly more accurate than what we say.

  1. Thijs Visser says

    Good article, and as a regular reader this doesn’t really rurprise as much. In fact the difference could even be bigger than stated here.

    People act better on their plans when they’ve stated them out loud to someone else, than when they state these plans only for themselves.

    So when people tell researchers what they think they will do, they’ll probably do a better job at following up at these statements, than what they would normally do.

  2. Mark Lester says

    As someone with experience of using focus groups and other types of claimed behavior to predict results for the purposes of designing more effective advertising, these results come as little surprise.

    One of many quirks of claimed behavior, for example, appears to be that people tend to describe past behavior rather than accurately describing future intention. All different types of dissonance emerge when asking people their opinions and feeling though.

    Still, the problem of finding realistically priced alternatives remains persistent.

  3. Brendon Clark says

    Good stuff. It reminds me of a dentist friend who regularly has to make a call on whether he thinks his patients will actually do what he’s recommending, or not.

    You turn up with a sore tooth. He does his thing and wonders, if you brush your teeth 3x a day, and floss, and use some mouthwash, I’ll leave the tooth in. If you won’t, I’ll pull it now and save problems later.

    He has to make a call on what he thinks you’re likely to do. He has a little benefit in that past behaviour is a good predictor of future behaviour and he may have a case history but, for the most part, believes he is a better predictor of your behaviour than you are.

    Maybe he’s right.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      It would seem like our individual predictions would be worse if the future behavior was virtuous but onerous. For example, we know it’s good to floss, and our dentist expects us to, and we really intend to try, so we say, “Yes, I’ll floss every day.” Then, reality settles in… flossing isn’t fun, it takes time, it’s time for bed and we are tired, so we skip it.

      Marketing predictions can be just as dicey due to interference by external factors. Even if I tell a market researcher that I will definitely buy their product, that purchase could be derailed buy another product being on sale or more convenient, or even a better pitch at the point of sale.


  4. Brian LoCicero says

    There are no silver bullets in Market Research. Brain activity combined with traditional methods will tell a much more compelling story mostly because:

    a) you’re not going to get n=200 people in a timely fashion to do “brainscan” methods as this takes everyone back to f2f interviewing. Great if a client is going to wait for their information however, this isn’t what the marketplace is telling us.
    b) there is plenty of data yet to still validate in this arena and n=10 studies aren’t going to get a lot of folks there believing it is the panacea. There needs to be considerable investment here beyond just the technologies at hand.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am and will continue to be a big supporter of this additional evidence in helping Market Researchers provide amazing insights to our clients. I just think we have a ways to go yet as an industry in our relationships with the customers/respondents and that we will respect their privacy and treat their information properly.

    Non-invasive headbands or other devices are nice, but we have to be careful on bordering on “big brother”.

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