Do You REALLY Love Your iPhone?


iphone tattoo
Lots of us say we love our favorite products. We love our Droid. We love our iPad. We love our comfy sweater. We love our bank. (Well, banks and airlines might feel the love a little less these days.) Last week, Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed and Buyology, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times that described his use of fMRI brain scans of subjects exposed to iPhone sounds and video.

…when they were exposed to the video, our subjects’ brains didn’t just see the vibrating iPhone, they “heard” it, too; and when they were exposed to the audio, they also “saw” it. This powerful cross-sensory phenomenon is known as synesthesia.

But most striking of all was the flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion. The subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member.

In short, the subjects didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction. Instead, they loved their iPhones.

To those of us who know iPhone owners, the idea that at least some would experience an emotion like romantic love doesn’t sound far-fetched at all. But this short piece unleashed a firestorm of controversy and attacks from skeptical neuroscientists.

Is it true love?

Neuroscience post-doc Tal Yarkoni wrote a detailed criticism in the [citation needed] blog: the New York Times blows it big time on brain imaging. Yarkoni presents a lengthy analysis of how brain imaging can and should be interpreted, and concluded that what Lindstrom saw wasn’t “love:”

So the most appropriate conclusion to draw from the fact that viewing iPhone pictures produces increased insula activity is something vague like “people are paying more attention to iPhones”, or “iPhones are particularly salient and interesting objects to humans living in 2011.” Not something like “no, really, you love your iPhone!”

Indecent Exposure

Mind Hacks critiqueOne commentary that didn’t pull any punches was at the Mind Hacks blog, which led with the rather unusual headline, “The New York Times wees itself in public.” The Times article clearly hit a nerve (that’s a figure of speech, not a neuroscientific claim):

The New York Times has just pissed its neuroscientific pants in public and is now running round the streets announcing the fact in an op-ed that could as easily been titled ‘Smell my wee!’…

fMRI Mathematics

Fellow Austinite Russell Poldrack, Professor of Psychology and Neurobiology and Director of the Imaging Research Center at the University of Texas, summed up his conclusions with a headline equation:

NYT Op-Ed + fMRI = complete crap

WIRED for BS detection

Wired blogger David Dobbs (Neuron Culture) added to the list of colorful headlines with, “fMRI Shows My Bullshit Detector Going Ape Shit Over iPhone Lust.”

The Neuro-Empire Strikes Back

A gaggle of neuroscientists (is there a more appropriate collective noun?) put together a letter for publication in the NYTimes refuting the original editorial – here’s the uncut version.

My Neuro-Prescription

The unfortunate fallout from this controversy is that neuromarketing being pilloried as pseudoscientific claptrap will slow legitimate efforts in the field. And this sort of thing will continue as long as all of the serious work in the field is being done by private firms. The two related problems with this are:

  1. Neuromarketing companies that know what they are doing and producing great client results (assuming such firms exist) would be crazy to publish all of their data and the details of their methods and techniques.
  2. Neuromarketing firms that don’t know what they are doing (assuming such firms exist) can use the same “secret sauce” excuse for not publishing data.

The only solution to this conundrum is serious academic research using the same tools employed by private efforts. I just returned from the University of Akron’s conference on the Consumer Mind, and I’m excited that sooner or later we’ll start seeing peer-reviewed research from Akron and other institutions. (I’ll have a more detailed description of what’s going on in Akron soon!)

Academic research and some degree of transparency by commercial firms will go a long way to avoiding flaps like the current one. And instead of arguing about whether we “love” our iphone vs. finding it cool, fun, or whatever, instead let’s see if we can use imaging techniques to identify and refine the next amazingly popular product.

  1. Ron Wright says

    Roger –

    Unfortunately Martin Lindstrom and similar “NeuroPop” authors would prefer to sell books and increase their appearance fees then ensure good science. The op-ed piece achieved its goal, i.e. more publicity about the new book and let the New York Times take the hit. It is a continuation of the problem Erik du Plessis identified, “the marketing of neuromarketing”.

    As for your Neuro-Prescription, I agree with your assessment (and put Sands Research in category #1) but would also add that start-ups in consumer neuroscience are being held up to different standards. There is a vast amount of academic research regarding the various fields of neuro-imaging methods that are being applied. Sometimes, the MR community does not want to accept or may even ignore decades of accepted principles in the field, i.e. the rise and fall of Emsense. As for transparency, eight companies worked together on the first Phase of ARF’s Neurostandards Study and will continue in this effort. ARF last week provided an excellent presentation on the various neuroscience methods being used, the strengths and weaknesses of each method, and recommended that the MR community needs to embrace neuroscience.

    However, the bottom line is the market will decide on whether neuromarketing survives not approval or disapproval from the academic world. If clients feel they are receiving a good ROI, neuromarketing will continue to grow. Considering it has only been a few years and how young this field is, I have seen the market move from early and simplistic “report card” type studies of finished work to where a majority of the work is pre-production studies (storyboards, animatics, product and packaging design, etc.) which, combined with traditional methodologies, provides actionable insights on how to improve the content. Major brands are repeat customers and building their own neuromarketing labs. They are not waiting for a yes or no vote from academia.

    Of course, we will work with academia to explore the new areas of research and provide the next generation of “neuromarketers”. For several of the firms that do not make it to the op-ed section of the Times, this is already underway. The work of these neuromarketing firms will sustain the field and produce the best fruit, not the showmen with limited knowledge of how to grow anything but their own personal brand.

    Ron Wright
    President / CEO
    Sands Research Inc.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    I agree, Ron, that consistently strong results with clients are critical, particularly for individual companies. I do think academic underpinnings for the base concepts are important, too, if only to avoid the constant bashing of the entire industry by other academics.


  3. Susan Silver says

    Good old Akron U, my family came from Akron. Nice to see a mention. I admit this is my first reactions without having read the piece. I will have to take a critical look at what was presented.

    It is an intersting study. I would like to see some more information then just a brain scan. I would suspect that if the were feeling “love” this would also account for increased levels of oxytocin. I haven’t read the piece yet, I don’t know if they measured any chemical reactions.

    Phones are a stand in for family and loved ones. I suspect that this has been amplified with the iphone and the way it connects us with the world. I think it would be hard to tell from a scan alone if the love was just for the iphone or a triggering of the emotions connected with them.

    I guess the best test would of course to see the attitudes if study participants that screen for these factors. As well as the scans of individuals who didn’t have smart phones. I would like to see how these results compare.

  4. Nathaniel Martin says

    Hmm I wonder if people who have the iphone and if it is true and people actually do produce higher levels of oxytocin, will they eventually get numb to it much like two people in a relationship?

    Ive read that once the “honeymoon” phase is over its simply our bodies becoming used to those increased levels of oxytocin, people claim that the “spark” is out of the relationship, but really its just the body adjusting to the higher levels of chemicals swirling around in our bloodstream…. or at least that’s what I’ve been lead to believe based upon the random books I’ve read about the subject.

    I wonder if the same thing would be true with people who are “in love” with the iphone? I suppose this would be impossible to find out considering people usually replace their phones almost every year, but its still interesting to think about.

  5. Neil Gains says


    Thanks for sharing all the articles on this, but I would love to know your point of view as well. You appear to be avoiding coming down on any side. In my opinion there are a lot of truths in neuroscience but the reality is that the science is still relatively undeveloped. I don’t think Martin Lindstrom’s hyping of poorly supported research will help the industry. What’s your take?



  6. Matt Wall says

    As the first commenter noted, people like this Lindstrom joker just end up giving neuromarketing a bad name. I firmly believe there is some genuinely interesting and useful science to be done in the realm of our relation with branding and advertising; unfortunately nobody seems to be doing it!

  7. Roger Dooley says

    Susan, I agree with your points. One of the issues with fMRI studies is that the sample size is necessarily small due to the cost of the equipment. That’s one reason why most commercial neuromarketing firms have focused on EEG. And “good old Akron U” has a very impressive focus on marketing, with the Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing and the Suarez Applied Marketing Research Labs.

    Neil, I think the work being done at Akron and elsewhere will help this problem a lot.

  8. Roger Dooley says

    Neil, I’m not an expert in interpreting fMRI scans, and in any case don’t have access to all the data. Clearly, dozens of academic neuroscientists disagree with Lindstrom’s interpretation of “love.”

    I do think that academics and neuromarketers have totally different objectives in using tools like fMRI and EEG. The scientists want to tease out the details of how our brains work, while marketers want to know which ads (or products) are more appealing and effective. As a marketer, if I can see a pattern of brain activation that correlates with people really liking a product, that’s all I need to know. While it’s tempting to start labeling the emotions involved and proposing theoretical interpretations of what’s being observed, none of that is necessary if the patterns are shown to have strong predictive power.

    Personally, I don’t care if it’s “love,” “really intriguing,” or “wow, cool!” If I can repeat the findings for products that people really like, and show that less exciting products produce different activation patterns, that’s enough.


  9. Matt Wall says

    Excellent point Roger – as a marketing person, you really don’t need to know exactly what the results *mean* in a scientific sense – all you need to know is that the technology works. Unfortunately it’s very tempting to start putting interpretations on these things – scientists get beaten down by reviewers of their papers if the take the interpretations even slightly beyond the data, so we’re trained not to do that kind of thing.

  10. Neil Gains says


    I agree regarding the practical application, although without the ‘why?’ the ‘what?’ may have limited marketing use. However, I’m not clear from Lindstrom’s article whether there was proper experimentation including a “control” and some of the fluff around the findings distracts from the real implications they may have. More importantly, I’m not clear of what predictive value his data has.


  11. James says

    I am really surprised (probably my naivete) that you think neuromarketing firms have developed so much data, I had until this point assumed it was a fairly small niche area using existing academic research and applying it to marketing (probably because that is what I do). How much research do they do? Does it dwarf the academic research in this area?

    I think this is a bit of a storm in teacup, I am glad the NYT article got slapped around because that is a public service, helping to educate the public about neuroscience. But if private firms are willing to employ a neuromarketing agency without doing basic due dilligence on the research they are given, then frankly more fool them.

  12. Razwana Wahid says

    Roger – I don’t know much about brain activity, but what I do know is this – I certainly treat my phone like it’s a friend! I may be a huge weirdo, but I would think most post people would attest to feeling like they’ve lost a limb if their phone is not with them.

    Great post.

    – Razwana

  13. Roger Dooley says

    Razwana, we all tend to treat electronic devices like people – see Computers As People: Happy Customers and Automation. Your “phone as friend” situation is totally believable.


  14. Razwana Wahid says

    Interesting reading … I would imagine this is the appeal of something like TiVo when it predicts what TV shows you are interested in! I don’t watch TV but a friend of mine is hooked since this piece of software now knows him rather well !

    – Razwana

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