Thomas Z. Ramsøy

The Added Value of Neuroscience

I’m often asked about what I believe are the added values of neuroscience insights and tools to business. After all, we are bombarded a gazillion things about the brain every day, and although these things are often “nice to know” we also often fail to translate this to business related insights and actions. Still, the scientific literature on the added value of neuroscience and subconscious measures has a long tail in psychology and neuroscience.

Indeed, one way to think about is as follows: economics and business has successfully included psychology as part of their understanding of choice. But this psychology was primarily behavioral and cognitive, and since the days of Kahneman, Tversky, Thaler and their likes, psychology has included neuroscience with great success. Indeed, the whole field of neuropsychology has long been seen to add substantial value to how we can understand the mind and, by extension, act to affect perception, thought and action.

Still, in business, we seem to be focused more on the latest news and fads in “what the brain can do” rather than translating this into how we can use such insights, and perhaps add new tools to our toolbox. Such efforts can at best only become translational science — where we borrow insights from basic science and then try to translate this into novel insights.

A more powerful approach is to use the tools and methodologies from neuroscience to improve our understanding of the drivers of consumption behaviors. As a foundational exercise, such aspects of neuroscience and can be broken down in the following sense (full reference at the bottom):

  • Speed: The subconscious precedes conscious thought
  • Impact: Subconscious processes have a strong impact on choice
  • Resolution: Brain responses unfold over milliseconds
  • Prediction: Subconscious brain responses predict individual and aggregate choice

Let’s dive a little into these in turn.

In business, we seem to be focused more on the latest news and fads in “what the brain can do”

Subconscious processes precede conscious thought and action

Through the history of neuroscience in psychology, it has become obvious that brain responses in many instances precede conscious choice and action. Turning this closer to decision-making and especially consumer choice, Knutson et al (2007) found that neural responses during product viewing were highly predictive of actual choice several seconds later. Notably, conscious experience of having made a choice also occurs later than the neural process. Earlier studies have reported the same relationship for more basic movement decisions (e.g. Libet, 1999). In a recent study, have we reported how certain brain responses during product viewing precede conscious thought and choice on how much to pay for a product (Ramsøy et al., 2018, see figure below).

Figure 1: Frontal asymmetry during product viewing as it predicts consumer choice and willingness to pay. More positive scores (more red) indicates stronger left than right engagement, more negative scores (more blue) denotes stronger right than left, except for alpha, where the relationship is reversed.

Together, such findings suggest that there are brain responses that quickly evaluate incoming stimuli and act upon them. This also corresponds to what we know about responses in more extreme types of behaviors, such as fear responses. When watching a horror movie, the feeling of being scared occurs simultaneously with avoidance behavior as well as physiological changes (heart rate, respiration, bodily tension etc) — this implies that some subconscious process has already processed the stimuli, made a decision about its danger, and acted upon, all occurring before conscious processing (Vuilleumier, 2005). 

Subconscious processes have a stronger impact on choice

Studies have repeatedly shown that choices are more driven by immediate and subconscious brain responses than conscious, stated responses. In many ways, it is found that conscious processes come “online” after the choice has been executed, suggesting that self-reports are not often privy to the underlying mechanisms of one’s own choice, and becomes a “retrofitting” of why one has chosen an action.

Conscious processes come “online” after the choice has been executed

Brand-based choices have also traditionally assumed that the influence of brands occurs on a more conscious level. However, in a well-known study by McClure and colleagues (2004) it was found that brand information had a subconscious impact on soft drinks preference. In addition, Santos et al (2011, see figure below) found that activity in the brain’s more frontal regions, which corresponded to a conscious and stated brand preference, were engaged after the choice had been executed. Similar findings have been reported for in-store behaviors, where choices that were affected by prior ad exposure were not consciously detected(Bagdziunaite et al., 2014).

Figure 2: Brain responses during decision making. The top rows indicate brain regions involved before and during decision-making, while the bottom rows indicate activity after the choice has been made, clearly showing engagement of frontal cortical regions such as the ventromedial prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices.

Neuroscience measures have a higher temporal resolution, better for granular insights

One of the strong sides of neuroscience measures is their high granularity. EEG and eye-tracking results often operate at the scale of tens of milliseconds and lower, although very often the measures are upscaled to a few hundred milliseconds. Conversely, conscious experience operates typically on the scale of seconds. More importantly, self-reports can rarely be done during an event (e.g. while going through a website) without affecting the experience itself (Hariri, Bookheimer & Mazziotta, 2000). This leaves self-reports mostly for after-the-fact situations, meaning that they are mainly retrospective accounts that rely on one’s episodic memory. 

This aspect can be illustrated by the way in which people respond to a Carlsberg video. Here, we tested 62 people (55% women, 35±14 years) where this ad was part of an ad roll interpersed as ad breaks in a documentary. In the video below, one can see the emotional (green = motivation, red = arousal/engagement) and cognitive responses (blue) as they unfold over time to the ad.

Furthermore, the access to this granularity of data can allow us to subdivide and analyze differences between groups. For example, if an ad produces lower recall in one group (e.g., men) after the test, is there something we can see in video responses that relates to this? On self-reports we typically do not get to the level of granularity that allows us to understand what an ad does right or wrong for a particular group. But neuroscience measures, when done right and with enough participants, can provide insights that people are typically not able to report. Below, we can see how women (light green) and men (dark green) respond differently in terms of emotional valence (motivation). 

Clearly, women on average produce more positive motivation responses at many times in the video. Although men and women show very similar responses, such as at the end of the ad, other times we see women produce highly positive scores. At this stage we can formulate hypotheses that perhaps these positive responses drive stronger attention and memory for the ad. This can then be tested with more directional tests on the same data set.  

Subconscious responses are better predictors of market responses

There is now a whole new trend in applied neuroscience that suggests that brain responses in smaller samples correlate highly with cultural and market responses. Indeed, emerging studies in cognitive neuroscience suggest that brain responses tap into more common human response patterns, and as such can predict behaviors outside the lab (Knutson & Genevsky, 2018). In a study by Dmochowski et al. (2014) it was found that coherent brain responses to TV content and ad breaks in a small test group (N=16) predicted market responses such as Twitter behaviors, and market research KPIs such as Nielsen ratings. In a more recent study, Boksem and Smidts (2014, see figure below) found dissociable brain responses such as frontal beta and gamma engagement during motive trailers separately predicted individual preference and market response, respectively. More specifically, lower frontal beta was associated with higher individual preference, while higher frontal gamma was associated with higher box office sales.

Brain responses to movie trailers predicts box office sales of movies. While certain types of frequencies show higher sensitivity to trailers (top), the gamma power to 56 movies was significantly positively related to box office sales (bottom).

These and other studies demonstrate that common brain responses — just like we all jump in our seats when watching a horror movie — are highly predictive of market responses. This nascent field of applied neuroscience is expected to provide many new insights and predictors linking brain responses to choice and even market responses.

Together, these studies demonstrate that, from an academic perspective, brain responses far exceed the types of insights we get from more traditional self-report measures. With Speed, Impact, Resolution and Prediction, neuroscience tools have become a valuable addition to any researcher who seeks to understand and potentially affect the human mind.