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Beware the Neuromaniacs!

Opinion, 11 February 2013

Are you going to the ARF conference in New York this year? If you are and you attend any of the (paid for) 'company presentations' you may well hear a pitch along the following lines: "More has been learned about the brain in the last 10 years than in the previous thousand. Neuroscience proves that our brains are in control of our behaviour and that asking people questions mislead us about our true nature. That's why we, at XYZ Research Inc., have pioneered BrainZap™ – a unique technique for finding out what your customers think, BEFORE THEY EVEN THINK IT."

I exaggerate (ever so slightly) to make the point that some neuromarketers (and they are usually not neuroscientists) get carried away with the idea that most consumer behaviour can be explained by reference to the brain. It's what philosopher/neuroscientist Raymond Tallis calls neuromania and it's reflected in the kind of populist, pseudo-scientific hubris that we see in books like Lindstrom's Buy.Ology and Pradeep's The Buying Brain.

Yes, of course it's true that everything we do has a neural correlate – because mental activity has to happen somewhere (and the brain's an obvious place for it to happen). But it doesn't follow that by observing that activity (via fMRI, EEG or indirectly via biometrics, or facial measurement), you explain what goes on. It's actually a type of crude reductionism that seeks to 'explain' human behaviour in terms of neuronal response and unconscious emotional drives – drives which, it is argued, can only be accessed by expensive and invasive methods that reduce our feelings to a squiggle on an EEG trace or similar.

The fact is that neuroscience is a necessary rather than a sufficient explanation of the consumer mind, because, as Steven Pinker points out, 'the mind is what the brain does' (think about it) and also our brains don't act in isolation – they constantly interact with the environment, to produce a kind of shared consciousness – a community of minds. The evidence is all around us, in the wonderful stuff that humans produce; in literature, in art, and in brands and advertising too. We create this stuff through both conscious reflection and imaginative intuition; though the application of reason and emotion; through neurons firing and through social influences. Culture is really the output of billions of human brains, interacting with the environment in which they exist. All of which surely suggests that we may learn as much from analysing the (cultural/linguistic) outputs of the brain as from looking at an EEG trace or fMRI scan.

So it's actually pretty bizarre that we humanise animals (often by attributing to them feelings they don't have) yet animalise humans. A good example is the way we use 'memory' - to describe both the process by which an dog locates his buried bone and the infinitely more complex one by which humans weave together their past experiences into a self-narrative. Consciousness and a sense of self are the two things that most differentiate us from the rest of the animal kingdom, yet each remains strangely impervious to adequate explanation via neuroscience. It's not called the 'hard problem' for nothing!

Looking at neurons alone will never give us the answer; treating people as humans might.

A version of this piece was first published on David Penn's blog

About the author

David Penn is MD of award winning agency Conquest, based in London's Kensington. The company is one of the UK's leading independent researchers, boasting ongoing clients such as Heinz, Pizza Hut, L'Oreal, Pernod-Ricard, KFC and eBay. Conquest carries out both quantitative and qualitative research and, most importantly, is a pioneer of innovative online research methodology, welding neuroscience and behavioural economics with traditional communications theory.

Before starting Conquest out of sheer frustration with what many research agencies had to offer, Penn amassed a wealth of experience in marketing and research spanning both client and agency sides of the business, honing his skills at Lever Bros and UB.

Penn has published and presented widely on marketing and brand research recently, at MRS, ESOMAR, WARC and ARF conferences as well as running a regular blog on WARC website. In the last 6 years, he and his team have been shortlisted, commended or won outright a total of 18 industry awards, garnering the prestigious innovation in Research Methodology award for 2014. Industry leader David Smith identified Penn as one of the key contributors to helping us understand "how developments in neuroscience mean we should be laying down a new theory of market research." Veteran industry blogger 'Left Field' and other peers admire the trail-blazing proprietary methodologies developed by Penn and his team to measure brand emotional engagement and viral potential. Penn's "fantastic (work shows) that nowhere is emotional engagement more important than for campaigns hoping to enjoy viral success and word-of-mouth."