Closer to the Buy Button?


VMF - brain location for value decisions

A specific part of the brain responsible for making decisions about value has been identified by neuroeconomics researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Using fMRI, psychology professor Joseph Kable has shown that the ventromedial frontal cortex, or VMF, plays a key role in decisions involving value.

The study used subjects with normal VMFs as well as some with VMFs damaged by injury or illness. The subjects were presented with a series of choices involving juice boxes and chocolate bars in groupings which implied that the candy bars were three times as valuable as the juice boxes. Subjects with normal VMFs learned the valuation and made consistent choices when presented with different combinations of products. Subjects who had suffered VMF damage made choices that did not reflect the values of the products and which were often inconsistent with previous choices.

Assessing the value of a product has been shown to be a key part of the brain’s process for making a purchase decisions. Earlier fMRI work by researchers like CMU’s George Loewenstein shows that prices that seem unfair cause a pain reaction in the brain.

Presumably, the conclusive identification of the brain structure responsible for value determination will give neuroeconomics and neuromarketing researchers an additional focus as they work to determine the total process for how the brain makes purchase decisions. More to the point for commercial neuromarketing firms that have the capability of measuring VMF activity, this work could advance the ability to help marketers determine product configurations and price points that consumers feel represent a good value.

It seems that the VMF might be the closest thing to a “buy button” yet discovered, although the full buying decision process involves many other areas of the brain. “Pushing” the VMF likely involves offering the consumer a great value, which even without brain scan data is recognized as a pretty good marketing technique.
Illustration by Patrick J. Lynch

  1. Jenius says

    One should always be wary of lesion studies. You can’t claim that because a lesioned subject had a deficit in results, the lesioned area is ‘responsable’ for the action associated with the experiment – all that it means is that the lesioned area is *somehow involved* in the process – it could simply be an area that information passes through rather than the area responsable for the final decision, and many past lesion studies have made this mistake.

    An fMRI study would help to validate these results. It wouldn’t have to be a super complex experimental design – perhaps the subject could be show objects that are differently valued and not as a control during fMRI, and if there is a significant difference in activity in the VMF, this would definitely go a long way in validating this hypothesis.

  2. Brain Supplements says

    Indeed something to be wary of but as also something that they already indicate:

    ‘It seems that the VMF might be the closest thing to a “buy button” yet discovered, although the full buying decision process involves many other areas of the brain’

    Interesting article nonetheless!

  3. The Child says

    Hm, very interesting. If it’s, “that consumers feel represent a good value”, does that mean this triggers some sort of emotion/gut feeling? Sort of an obligation to pick a certain choice could be very helpful for marketing.

    I must say, this does seem to reflect on our culture. People are swayed by their emotions. Emotions are quite a powerful force. To counter this feeling, would we simply need closer examination of the deal?

    The Child

  4. Matt Wall says

    Interesting, but the VMF is a massive area, with probably a whole host of diversified high-level functions. That part of the brain is a key area in studies of facial attractiveness (for instance) and also moral reasoning. The search for the true ‘buy button’ continues!

  5. Roger Dooley says

    I think that’s going to be a long search, Matt!


  6. Best Brain Supplements says

    Very interesting! As much as it seems like a real breakthrough, we have a long way to go before getting that “buy button”. Perhaps, that’s for the best. It’s a bit scary to me – the possibility that companies can get this kind of knowledge.

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