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Neuroscience and Marketing Research: From the Front Lines

center 4 neural decision makingRecently I was invited to attend a neuroscience conference at Temple University in Philadelphia, organized by their Center for Neural Decision Making, along with MIT and the University of Michigan. It turned out to be a very interesting experience with excellent speakers, great interactions and a terrific panel discussion. Some highlights:

  • Michael Norton of Harvard spoke with humor about the sensitive topic of racial paralysis. This is the tendency of people to refrain from making any decisions when faced with a situation where they could potentially be perceived as racist. His approach used data from experiments, surveys and neural imaging, a nice way to triangulate the results.
  • Read Montague from Virginia Tech, who is the author of Why Choose This Book?, spoke about a large (by neuro imaging standards) study he has conducted that showed how people build predictive mental models of other people's behavior.
  • Hilke Plassman of INSEAD and Wharton used neural imaging to show why people feel that low calorie foods have lower flavor intensity and are hence prone to over-eating.
  • Mili Milosavljevic from Stanford discussed how consumer attention can be captured in a cluttered marketplace.
  • Carl Marci of Innerscope Research, a physician by training, spoke about the advances made by his company and the innovative methods they use for multi-sensory measurement.

A combined academic and practitioner panel discussed ways of fostering collaboration between the two groups. While there was general optimism about the prospects, the fact that each group had a different incentive structure was not lost on anyone. Read Montague encapsulated the dilemma when he said "If I come up with something original and marketable, as a commercial entity, why would I share my findings with everyone?"

It was clear from the conference that the amount of scholarly work done in the area of neuroscience has been going up steadily. Business schools are increasingly hiring faculty who specialize in neuroscience and they in turn are churning out more scholars who have expertise in the area. While the cost of equipment is still very high thus making studies expensive, several large companies have at least tried out the technique to see what new insights they can get. Stacy Schulman of Turner Broadcasting talked about using neuroimaging to understand how people select content on TV.

But it is also clear that neuroimaging is not going to replace more traditional methods any time soon. Even compared to other new research platforms and methods like mobile surveys and text analytics, the barriers to conducting a neuroimaging study are significantly higher. But they do provide a very unique perspective in that one can directly tell that something is happening in response to a stimulus, regardless of the whether the respondent is willing or able to say it. Hence, currently they form a nice compliment to more traditional research methods.

The conference showed that academic studies are becoming increasingly sophisticated, using larger sample sizes and multi-mode approaches. As the technology advances and cost decreases, this method will certainly gain a significant place for itself among the next generation of marketing research methods.

Tagged in: Neuroscience

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Guest Sunday, 21 July 2019

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