Thomas Z. Ramsøy

Motivation in the Metaverse: Decoding the Neuroscience of Virtual Shopping

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In the not-too-distant future, we will likely be spending more and more time in the metaverse – a virtual space where we can interact with others and explore a range of digital environments. Never mind the current failed interest in this area, that part of the future will still arrive, and likely sooner than we think. As we move toward this future, it’s important to understand how people make decisions in this new reality,

I have been fortunate to be the principal investigator of the article that is now out in the leading neuroscience journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, with the name “Motivation in the Metaverse: A Dual-Process Approach to Consumer Choices in a Virtual Reality Supermarket.” I am excited to share our recent findings on the neural mechanisms behind consumer decision-making in a virtual reality (VR) supermarket. The study was a part of the pan-European research collaboration called RHUMBO.

The Study

Our study was designed to investigate whether asymmetrical activation of the frontal lobe of the brain could help to characterize consumers’ choices in a VR retail environment. In earlier studies, we have shown that this response can be used to both predict and understand consumer choice. In many respects, this metric seems to be an answer to the explicit need we have for valid and reliable measures of consumer emotions. To obtain stronger experimental control, we conducted our experiment in a virtual reality retail store, while simultaneously recording participant brain responses using electroencephalogram (EEG).

During the virtual store test, participants completed two tasks: choosing items from a predefined shopping list (planned purchase) and choosing products that were not on the list (unplanned purchase). We assumed that the planned purchases were associated with a stronger cognitive engagement, while the second task relied more on immediate emotional responses.

For a person that took part in the study, this is how their experience would unfold: after donning a virtual reality headset, they would be transported to a virtual supermarket. In this immersive environment, they would be given two shopping tasks to complete. The first task would involve selecting items from a predefined list, while the second would allow them to choose products that were not on the list.

As the participant moved through the virtual store and made their selections, their brain activity would be recorded via an EEG. With each decision, a unique pattern of brain activity would emerge, reflecting the participant’s cognitive and emotional responses.

The researchers would be carefully observing the EEG monitor, eagerly anticipating the patterns of brain activity that would emerge as the participant made their choices. During planned purchases, the EEG would show a stronger cognitive engagement, with a clear asymmetry in the alpha and beta frequency ranges. In contrast, the EEG would indicate a stronger emotional response during unplanned purchases, with a higher relative frontal left activity in the gamma frequency range.

Frontal asymmetry in the gamma band changes over time and is different for planned and unplanned choices. A negative score means that there is stronger “negative” motivation. This type of response is seen in the early decision phase of planned choices, where there is an initial negative emotion to a product that then wanes and triggers a choice. Critically, for unplanned choices, the closer the consumer is to executing the choice, the frontal asymmetry becomes more positive. This suggests that for unplanned choices, the gamma-band asymmetry score is an index of choice-to-action in consumer behavior.

Overall, the participant’s brain activity during the study would provide a fascinating window into the neural mechanisms underlying consumer decision-making in virtual reality. As we continue to explore this emerging field, this type of research will become increasingly important as virtual and augmented reality technology continues to evolve and enter new realms of our lives.

What We Found

Our analysis of the EEG data based on frontal asymmetry measures revealed that frontal asymmetry in the gamma band reflected the distinction between planned and unplanned decisions. Unplanned purchases were accompanied by stronger asymmetry deflections, indicating higher relative frontal left activity.

In addition, frontal asymmetry in the alpha, beta, and gamma ranges illustrated clear differences between choices and no-choices periods during the shopping tasks. As such, this supports earlier findings that there is a need for a better understanding of the typology and heterogeneity of frontal asymmetry responses

What it Means

These findings are significant in understanding the dual-process nature of consumer choices in MR systems, particularly in the emerging area of virtual and augmented shopping. They also confirm previous findings in a semi-realistic VR environment, which makes the current study fruitful for consumer neuroscience and the VR research field.

As we move towards the future of the metaverse, these findings and further research on the dual-process nature of consumer choices in MR systems will become increasingly important, particularly as emerging technological paradigms such as the Metaverse become distributed at the level that non-immersive social media have reached today.