Scientific realism: what ‘neuromarketing’ can and can’t tell us about consumers

Graham Page

Millward Brown


According to some, ‘neuromarketing’ will change market research and marketing fundamentally. The argument essentially goes: people don’t (and can’t) really know what motivates them, because much of our mental processes are unconscious. So answers on surveys and in qualitative discussions are simply post rationalisations, and, to really understand what is going on, we have to measure the brain directly. This unique revelation of the inner truth is in essence the ‘Big Promise’ of neuromarketing.

There is some truth in this. Converging evidence from neuroscience, experimental psychology and behavioural economics suggests that we think through decisions and actions far less than we like to believe. We often behave on instinct, and think about why afterwards, rather than before. Thinking is hard work for the brain, so we avoid it when we can, and the classical economics view of consumers as rational optimisers is simply a myth. However, to go to the other extreme, as some would do, and argue that almost all decision making is unconscious and emotionally driven, would be to sell ourselves on an equally egregious myth. We are not zombies when we shop, mindlessly and unknowingly putting brands in our baskets and stumbling to the checkout in a fog. If all conventional research were simply­ post rationalisation, then metrics derived from such research would bear no relation to people’s behaviour. Yet, when done well, there is a very clear link between research and reality.