How Marketers Are Plotting To Use Neuroscience To Control What You Buy

05/11/2015 06:39 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2015


Ever felt exceedingly pleased with yourself after splurging on a luxury good?

Blame marketers, who are becoming increasingly sophisticated and increasingly Orwellian. Case in point: A recent study published in the Journal of Marketing Research used brain imaging tech to test how the amount of grey matter a person has affects how he or she make decisions about products.

Previous studies have shown that people are more likely to enjoy consuming a product that is labeled as more expensive, whether or not the product is actually of a higher quality. Termed the “marketing placebo effect” the perceived value of something can affect the actual experience of it -- even the price of painkillers can affect how people experience pain.

We’ve known this for a while, but the researchers at the INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau, France wanted to see the effect in action -- in the brain -- while people were actually consuming stuff.

The researchers claim that the volume of grey matter in certain structures of the brain affects how susceptible a person is to marketing placebo effects, and that this varies by individual. Cool, got it. Then they creepily conclude that, in the future, they could brainwash us take advantage of this neuroscience to influence what we buy.

Before we get into how and whether this could actually happen, let's take a quick look at the study.

Placebos don’t cost a thing

The researchers performed three different types of studies.

For the first, they re-analyzed the results of previous research they conducted in 2008. In that study, 90 participants were told they would be consuming wines from five different price ranges between $5 and $90, when really they were only sipping two types of wine that were either $5 or $90. This study showed the placebo effect was alive and well. They liked the more expensive wines better.

Because participants’ brains were being scanned by functional MRI machines while they judged the wine, the researchers were able to go back and analyze that same data for “grey matter volume.” Then they took the grey matter data and plugged it into a database that looked for links between volume and cognitive functions. This time they found:

  • Those who have a higher grey matter volume in the striatum, the part of the brain involved in processing rewards, responded more easily to the marketing placebo effect. The researchers took that to mean these poor suckers were more responsive to (perceived) rewards. If that wine says it’s expensive, then it must be good!
  • Those who have a higher grey matter volume in their prefrontal cortex, which is involved in making decisions, social behavior and personality, are also pretty susceptible to the placebo effect. Again, that wine’s expensive and therefore must be good.
  • Those who have more grey matter in the posterior part of the insula, a brain region involved in sensory processing, aren’t quite as easily influenced -- they know when they taste good wine and can’t easily be tricked by a price tag.

In the second study, the researchers doubled back, testing whether these differences in grey matter correlated with different personality types, like being more responsive to rewards and paying more attention to your gut feeling rather than marketing. They essentially replicated the wine experiment, but also had subjects take a personality survey testing for reward processing, responding to statements like: “When I get something I want, I feel excited and energized.” From this the researchers say they were able to confirm the grey matter/personality connection.

And in the third study, they tested to see if the placebo effect could be applied to aesthetic consumption -- if someone told you a piece of abstract art was actually painted by Russian expressionist artist Wassily Kandinsky, would that change your perception of the piece’s value? According to the researchers, the effect works for aesthetic consumption as well.

Fifty shades of grey matter

Normally marketers identify and segment the population using various demographics, like age, race or geography. But these researchers are aiming to use differences in brain anatomy to categorize you. Commence daydream about a dystopian future in which we are all indoctrinated by an Evil Board of Mad Men using our brains to further oppress us in a capitalist society driven by Funzos.

Before you freak out too much, however, it’s important to keep things in perspective. First off, this study is quite small. And while the researchers say they are able to pinpoint individual differences in our brain function, what those differences mean is murky. After all, our understanding of the human brain is still not much better than Apple Maps’ understanding of ... geography. Without granular knowledge of how the brain’s billions of neurons connect and give rise to individual behaviors, it’s not possible to predict behavior, let alone whole personality types.

Also, our grey matter volume changes with age. So, if marketers really wanted to target you over your lifetime, they’d have to have a very nuanced understanding of how brains respond to the things they’re trying to sell you over time. And that’s just not possible right now.

Brave new world?

When it comes to real-world application, Hilke Plassmann, the first author of the study, reassured Fusion that she’s not suggesting we collect biological data, but “sample customers personalities based on questionnaires that I could link to the brain data in my work.” Right.

She also speculates that the marketing placebo effect may be more dominant in industries dealing with luxury goods. So if we’re shopping at IKEA or drinking boxed wine, we’ll probably be safe.

What can we as consumers do to combat the impending onslaught of hyper-personalized marketing? Well, for starters, try not to take certain data-mining quizzes and exercise your self-control. Even if marketers can’t do what Plassman describes now, it means they’re thinking about ever more devious ways to play to your biases and vulnerabilities.

Oh, and whatever you do, don’t eat the soma!

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