The “Neuro” Magic Behind Consumer Mindreading

The true nature of “neuro” knowledge derived from marketing research has been systematically misused for years. Do marketers really have an access to what we actually think and how we actually feel in the context of purchasing environment?

25 June 2018

The concept of neuroscience in the contemporary business world is commonly misinterpreted and misused as it is often falsely compared with neuromarketing. Neuroscience studies the brain and underlying neurological processes behind cognition and behavior, whereas neuromarketing is a branch of marketing, which seeks to utilize data on cognition and behavior to produce better marketing strategies. As vivid, these two concepts are far from being the same, and while the interest towards consumer’s cognition, behavior and affect (thoughts, emotions, memory, purchasing intention, attention etc.) has been rapidly increasing, the real question is how do we collect that “neuro” kind of information and can we accurately record it at all? 



The gap between neuroscience and marketing business often has to do with research methodology behind data collection. For predictive analytics we are mostly interested in numerical data, however it is important to understand that any value in a dataset is just a number that may not represent the reality accurately. Subsequently, poor quality data leads to inaccurate analysis, and hence invalid decisions derived from invalid results. While it is relatively easy to measure one’s height or weight using well established measurement tools, we do not have such tools to directly measure one’s intentions, attention, emotions or thoughts especially within a purchasing environment. After all, nobody can guarantee that values we have in datasets correctly reflect what is actually happening in people’s minds. 



Some of the widely used methods in marketing research at the moment involve self-reporting tools, like questionnaires, however these methods often come with plenty of bias, which affect accuracy (often even validity) of subsequent statistical analysis. On the other hand, in the world of big data today, marketers often seek patterns and trends within data collected in cyberspace. Good data quality allows us to make pretty accurate predictions about online consumer behavior, however it does not allow us to study human cognition and emotions directly. I would argue that cyberspace has little to do with neuroscience as such in the field of marketing. To make it simple, we do not really study people’s mind directly, rather we study numbers. And numbers have neither cognition nor emotions.



Lately, the concept of neuroscience in the field of marketing has been vastly associated with eye-tracking devices, except that eye-tracking devices were not designed to study the brain but to study eye movements. It is indeed a great tool, however, its greatness to a large extent depends on research methodology. If designed poorly, a study will produce invalid date and thus, inaccurate research conclusions. For example, without carefully designed studies it is difficult to conclude that the more time consumers spend looking at a product, the more likely they are to buy it. Equally, we cannot conclude a relationship between time spent gazing at something and consciously generated interest. There are plenty of similar examples, that is why theoretical background together with great research methodology and design are crucial for such types of research. But it still is not really “neuro” research. 



As of today, however, scientists have made an impressive progress regarding “reading” people’s mind. I am talking about technology enabling decoding visual information. That way, by analyzing brain activity, we can reconstruct images that people see. But these methods are relatively new, pricy and are many years away from being massively used in the world of commerce. 



Marketers today do not have any direct access to our emotions and thoughts. Marketing research enables us to build predictive models, but it is not really neuroscience. I have no doubt that over time we will be able to come up with technologies to study human mind directly, but its usage in business will surely be hampered by ethical issues as well as data protection policies.



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