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Neuroscience Doesn’t Have To Be That Complicated!

Neuroscience allows us to go straight into the engine room of the mind. When done right, this is a tremendously powerful approach to understanding what drives our choices. If done wrong, we will be confused, misguided and frustrated. It doesn’t have to be that complicated.

p style=”text-align: left;”>The recent use of neuroscience in business tends to divide the waters between the yay and the nay sayers. And maybe it’s no wonder. Today, we are constantly bombarded with news items that there is no God spot in the brain; that deep, unconscious structures of the brain are responsible for most of our choices; that we have specific neurons that are used to recognize intentions and emotions in others (so-called mirror neurons).

The problem is that this scattered information only leaves us with a patchwork of information, but with no coherent picture. How, one might wonder, can we use this knowledge to affect our business? Today’s steady stream of news from neuroscience still has a very low actionable value.

Nevertheless, there is an irrefutable fact that business is facing a challenge that only neuroscience can help solve. As any behavioral economist will tell you, human are irrational creatures. We deviate from what are the normative best solutions. We make decisions based on incomplete information. We are affected by contextual information and make mental shortcuts.

However, behavioral economics does not explain why we err in the first place. Here, neuroscience has demonstrated added value on two counts. First, it provides a causal explanation – we are loss aversive because our risk decisions unfortunately engage structures that typically response to either threat or rewards. Second, neuroscience provides an entire palette of methods that can be used to assess unconscious mental processes that a person is not even privy to.

In short, neuroscience allows us to go straight into the engine room of the mind. When done right, this is a tremendously powerful approach to understanding what drives our choices. When done wrong, we will be more confused, misguided and frustrated by neuroscience than we were before we started.

This leaves us in a dilemma: we need neuroscience to understand and measure the unconscious facets of our behavior, but does neuroscience need to be so darn hard to understand?

The short answer is: of course not!

We really do not need to make it this hard on ourselves. To produce clear, actionable insights, we need not understand the nitty gritty. It is not really important to understand the significance of mirror neurons in empathy; the nucleus accumbens in consumer choice; or the uncinate fasciculus in the control of emotions. This is semantic babbling that only at best can impress, but so often confuse the recipient.

The problem is that so many proponents of neuromarketing are using the neuroscience jargon. Fancy, colorful brain images accompanied by strange jargon seems so often to be what people communicate.

Worst of all are solutions where clients pay for neuromarketing tests but the actual metrics are secret, and all is hidden in a mist of neuro-oxymoron jargon. As neuroscience has progressed, we already have good markers of emotion, working memory, attention and motivation. There is no secret sauce.

What we need is a common language that provide actionable insights, but without a need for a PhD in neuroscience to make sense of it. In the case of neuromarketing, one should focus on terms that we all understand, such as attention, cognition, emotion and motivation. Do customers see or miss a particular piece of information? How do they respond emotionally to it? Does an ad contain too much information? Are customers motivated to purchase the product?

These are all insights that all marketers can relate to, and that you cannot reliably get from more traditional self-report measures. When done right, neuromarketing is extremely valuable in going behind the scenes of the conscious mind.

Neuromarketing needs a place to be communicated and synthesized, explained and debunked. That is exactly why we are starting this blog at GreenBook. This is the spot, and I hope you’ll dial in as much as possible.

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3 responses to “Neuroscience Doesn’t Have To Be That Complicated!

  1. Terrific points made in this blog. However, another way Neuromarketing is unnecessarily complicating marketing communication research is by even being “Neuro.” I learned in my media research PhD program in the 90’s how to provide insight into more and less conscious mental processes related to attention, emotion, motivation and memory using simpler psychophysiological measures like heart rate, skin conductance and facial EMG. Media researchers have adopted Psychophysiology as a research paradigm that can guide the valid combination of psychophysiological measures with other relevant more traditional marketing research measures and methods to provide a holistic description of how individuals interact with and are influenced by communications. With all due respect to the amazing Neuroscientists that are advancing Neuromraketing, clear, actionable marketing, entertainment, and information media research is more likely to emerge from media researchers who understand human mediated experience applying Psychophysiology than Neuroscientists, who likely lack any media or communication experience or training applying their methods to a complex human communication phenomenon.

    Paul Bolls
    Associate Professor of Strategic Communication and Co-director, PRIMELAB
    University of Missouri School of Journalism
    Scientific Director, ComScience Minds

  2. Dear Professor Bolls,

    Please excuse me for failing to see your comment any earlier. I completely agree with your reservation. Neuro is not enough, by a long shot. Neuroscientists, while maybe having the right solution, often fail to provide true commercial and actionable insights. At the other end, we see people without this background who misinterpret, misrepresent and thus confuse and inflate true insights from using neuroscience and psychophysiology.

    This post focused most on a third problem, in that neuro seems to imply to some that “it’s too complex, so let’s make it secret and proprietary”. On the contrary, if you want to understand attention, emotion, motivation and cognitive processes, you can go with solutions and protocols that are well documented and validated. There is no need for things to be secret.

    Whether you want to call it neuroscience or psychophysiology, there is a common bottom line. We have to understand human behavior as a mix between biology and psychological narration. This is a non-trivial insight. Our behavior is not the sole product of overt, fully informed and rational choice. Quite the contrary, our brains have severe bandwidth limitations, pre-programmed response patterns and shortcuts. Being able to understand these consumer processes is vital. It’s giving you two legs to stand on.

    Of course, this challenges neuroscientisist to think differently. Neuro- should have clear actionable insights. Just as we should require from any other method (big data, even surveys, interviews, social media and the lot). Fortunately, not all neuroscientisis are solely brain-geeks without business experience and media training, just as well as not all business people glaze over brainy issues to apply simplistic explanations.

    Best wishes,

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