Sexy Pics Beat Ugly Spiders


Erotic images sell better than pictures of office supplies, and a lot better than photos of hairy spiders. Who knew? Actually, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. Stanford researchers led by neuroeconomics prof Brian Knutson have found that positive images, in this case mildly erotic photos of men and women shown to heterosexual men, stimulate the reward center in the brain and induce the viewers to take greater financial risks than subjects who saw neutral (office supplies) or negative (big spider) images. This effect was purely a priming effect, as all of the images were irrelevant to the subsequent decision. The implications of this work could be broad, impacting such diverse areas as gaming and auto sales.

“This is the first study to demonstrate that emotional stimuli can influence financial risk-taking,” said Knutson, lead author of a paper describing the research in the current issue of NeuroReport. The hard evidence was gathered by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of participants’ brains as they viewed photographs of positive, negative or neutral subjects and then had to quickly make a decision to choose one of two levels of financial risk in a required gamble. [From The Stanford Report Study shows that stimuli unrelated to decision can still influence men’s choices by Louis Bergeron.]

Subjects were exposed to the pictures, given $10, put in a fMRI tube, and given the opportunity to make bets of varying degrees of risk.

“What we saw is that when they viewed the erotic pictures, the activation in their nucleus accumbens increased compared to the other stimuli, and also that they had increased activation in that region before choosing the high-risk gamble,” Knutson said…

“The interesting finding from an economic standpoint is that these completely irrelevant stimuli, these pictures that have nothing to do with the gambles or the history of outcomes that people have experienced with these gambles, still influence behavior,” he said. “They seem to do so at least partially by influencing activation of these brain regions.”

As usual, gaming operations demonstrate that their understanding of behavioral psychology is well ahead of most other kinds of companies: they put their customers in a position to make risky financial decisions, and prime them with scantily-clad staff and free alcohol. The visual and auditory environment in casinos is relentlessly positive, too – you never hear people losing, but you certainly experience lots of clanging bells and flashing lights when a player earns even a modest jackpot.

I think the implications of this work go way beyond gambling operations, though. In most selling situation, a customer is making a risky decision. Buy the car today, and you’ll be stuck with it for years. You may see a better deal tomorrow, but have no way to change your mind. Commit to a monthly payment, and you might be fired in a week but still have to cough up the cash. There are a million little fears that can give a buyer cold feet. Could positive imagery in the sales area calm some of these fears?

Before auto dealers across the country start replacing their car posters with adult-themed pictures of embracing couples, there are a few caveats:
1. The research tested very broad categories of images, and there’s no guarantee that erotic images would outperform, say, very positive lifestyle images involving the product – a luxury car parked in front of a glowing mansion with an attractive woman stepping out, or an SUV parked by a scenic lake with a family enjoying a campfire dinner. Indeed, such images are often already found in dealerships.
2. This is almost certainly a minor effect that will be outweighed by the objective qualities of the product, the customer’s interest in the product, the price, and many other factors.
3. As Knutsen notes, the image effect is potentially fleeting:

“Our trials are happening relatively fast, changing on a second-to-second basis,” he noted. “We’re forcing people to immediately make a decision, and the emotional stimuli appear in close temporal proximity to the decision itself.

“If you have these kinds of appeals, you’d better make it easy for people to make an immediate decision. You should put them under time pressure,” he said.

In other words, whatever impact your magazine ad might have at the instant that the reader sees it may well be long-gone by the time he gets to the store or showroom.

The Neuromarketing Prescription

I do think this work does have immediate applicability for in-person sales environments. I doubt if many sales offices have tarantula posters on the wall, but I have seen some pretty strange artifacts on people’s desks. It might be time for the sales manager to do a sweep of the sales offices. I’d both eliminate any potentially negative images (or items) and install some positive (but appropriate) pictures. It can’t hurt, and once in a while it might just help.

  1. Nick Booth says

    I imagine the risk taking is a product of mental triggers for the pursuit of the possibility of a sexual partner. If the research is based on the responses of heterosexual males perhaps car dealers can trigger the same response by simply employing attractive women as sales’men’?

    By the way I’ve been enjoying your blog for many months now. Thank you.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Thanks, Nick. Actually, I wrote about your suggestion here: Are Women Better At Sales?


  3. fastlook says

    Interesting article! It’s one of the most interesting neuroeconomical topic. Generally your blog contains many good articles. Perhaps you want to think about the connection between our implicit reward center and successful brands?

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