Are we hard-wired for brand preference?

Amazing discoveries await scientists using sophisticated brain imaging techniques. And it must be accurate, because it correctly identified Justin Timberlake as "uncool." Here's an excerpt from the article. Full text on LA Times site.


The Why of Buy
Source: LA Times
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Psychologists and economists are using sophisticated brain scanners to tease apart the automatic judgments that dart below the surface of awareness.

They seek to understand the cellular sweetness of rewards and the biology of brand consciousness. In the process, they are gleaning hints as to how our synapses might be manipulated to boost sales, generate fads or even win votes for political candidates.

They have glimpsed how the brain assembles belief.

The why of buy is a trillion-dollar question.

By one estimate, 700 new products are introduced every day. Last year, 26,893 new food and household products materialized on store shelves around the world, including 115 deodorants, 187 breakfast cereals and 303 women's fragrances. In all, 2 million brands vie for attention.

To find profit in so many similar items, marketers try to brand a product on a buyer's mind. Such efforts put the average American adult in the crosshairs of as many as 3,000 advertising messages a day five times more than two decades ago.

Children are exposed to 40,000 commercials every year. By the age of 18 months, they can recognize logos. By 10, they have memorized 300 to 400 brands, according to Boston College sociologist Juliet B. Schor. The average adult can recognize thousands.

"We are embedded in an enormous sea of cultural messages, the neural influences of which we poorly understand," said neuroscientist Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "We don't understand the way in which messages can gain control over our behavior."

That is starting to change. By monitoring brain activity directly, researchers are discovering the unexpected ways in which the brain makes up its mind.

Many seemingly rational decisions are reflexive snap judgments, shaped by networks of neurons acting in concert. These orchestras of cells are surprisingly malleable, readily responding to the influence of experience.

Moreover, researchers suspect that the inescapable influence of marketing does more than change minds. It may alter the brain.

Just as practicing the piano or learning to read can physically alter areas of the cerebral cortex, the intense, repetitive stimulation of marketing might shape susceptible brain circuits involved in decision-making.

These inquiries into consumer behavior harness techniques pioneered for medical diagnosis: positron emission tomography, which measures the brain's chemical activity; magneto-encephalography, which measures the brain's magnetic fields; and functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures blood flow around working neurons.

"This is a way of prying open the box and seeing what is inside," said psychologist Jonathan Cohen, director of Princeton University's Center for the Study of Brain, Mind & Behavior.

Inside the Caltech scanner, faces flashed before the subject's eyes.

Each one was famous an easily recognized emblem of celebrity marketed as heavily as any designer label.

Each triggered a response in the volunteer's brain, recorded by Quartz and Asp with Caltech's $2.5-million functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI) and then weighed against the volunteer's responses to a 14-page questionnaire.

Uma Thurman. Cool.

Barbra Streisand. Uncool.

Justin Timberlake. Uncool.

Al Pacino. Cool.

Patrick Swayze. Very uncool.

The volunteer's brain cells became a focus group.

In his mind's eye, the celebrities triggered many of the same circuits as images of shoes, cars, chairs, wristwatches, sunglasses, handbags and water bottles.

For all their differences, objects and celebrity faces were reduced to a common denominator: a spasm of synapses in a part of the cortex called Brodmann's area 10, a region associated with a sense of identity and social image.

"On first pass, there might seem to be nothing in common between cool sunglasses, cool dishwashers and cool people," Asp said. "But there is something that these brains are recognizing some common dimension."

None of these neural responses come consciously to mind when a shopper is browsing brand labels.

Much of what was traditionally considered the product of logic and deliberation is actually driven by primitive brain systems responsible for emotional responses automatic processes that evolved to manage conflicts between sex, hunger, thirst and the other elemental appetites of survival.

In recent years, researchers have discovered that regions such as the amygdala, the hippocampus and the hypothalamus are dynamic switchboards that blend memory, emotions and biochemical triggers. These interconnected neurons shape the ways that fear, panic, exhilaration and social pressure influence the choices people make.

As researchers have learned to map the anatomy of behavior, they realized that the brain a 3-pound constellation of relationships between billions of cells, shaped by the interplay of genes and environment is more malleable than anyone had guessed.

Lattices of neurons are linked by pathways forged, then continually revised, by experience. So intimate is this feedback that there is no way to separate the brain's neural structure from the influence of the world that surrounds it.

In that sense, some people may indeed be born to shop; but others may be molded into consumers.

"We think there are branded brains," Asp said.

The Caltech experiment, funded with a $1-million grant from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, seemed to detect a part of the brain susceptible to such influences.

After analyzing test data from 21 men and women, Quartz and Asp discovered that consumer products triggered distinctive brain patterns that allowed them to classify people in broad psychological categories.

At one extreme were people whose brains responded intensely to "cool" products and celebrities with bursts of activity in Brodmann's area 10 but reacted not at all to the "uncool" displays.

The scientists dubbed these people "cool fools," likely to be impulsive or compulsive shoppers.

At the other extreme were people whose brains reacted only to the unstylish items, a pattern that fits well with people who tend to be anxious, apprehensive or neurotic, Quartz said.

The reaction in both sets of brains was intense. The brains reflexively sought to fulfill desires or avoid humiliation.

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