If a new book with a subtitle such as ‘The Secret Lives of the Brain’ is launched to an  advertising and marketing audience I can feel an involuntary and almost visceral scepticism reflex running through my body. Great, another book out there that tries to capitalise on the current hype around modern neuroscience and the commercial world. And my suspicion is that the author will again use very flowery and metaphorical language to interpret bits of neuroscience that will fit a particular marketing philosophy. Many have done so before and the role of metaphor in these types of publications is either to simplify scientific concepts to a level where the presumed readership is able and willing to follow or to disguise the fact that the author is lacking a thorough understanding of the original research himself (the culprits shall remain anonymous here). 

Well, at least in the case of David Eagleman we don’t need to worry about the science bit. Even though almost a tiny bit too slick and not at all nerdy in his appearance, Eagleman is definitely a proper scientist who understands his trade. He leads a respected neuroscience lab in the US, has tons of scientific publications, many of which are in the top journals of the field. But that is not enough. He is also very active in terms of engaging the public with neuroscientific research and no doubt he is also extremely clever at marketing his scientific expertise to the commercial world.


Last week Eagleman presented his latest book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain at an event organised by London-based research company Hall & Partners in a fashionable café in Soho. The place was packed (a free breakfast is definitely something that can act as a choice bias for where to spend your Thursday morning) and Eagleman was able to demonstrate his great skill to fascinate a non-specialist audience with facts and anecdotes about the funny ways in which our mind works.


His core argument probably goes something like this: The brain is an extremely complex organ and there are always many, many processes going on under the hood of this complex neural machinery for any one task that we perform and at any one point in time. These processes can be reinforcing themselves or can be in competition. Eagleman uses the term ‘team of rivals’ to describe this constant neural fighting and negotiating that is going on in our brains and compared it to how parliamentary sessions work where you usually have many consenting and dissenting voices shouting at the same time. Emerging from this apparent chaos of simultaneous neural processes our perceptions of objects in the world are formed and our actions are taken. But the funny thing is that conscious awareness of what we actually do and perceive only comes in at the very end but nevertheless our consciousness is bold enough to take credit for all the hard work that the underlying unconscious processes have actually done (please forgive the metaphor).


Interesting theory – but actually relevant for marketing and advertising? The invited audience from the advertising and marketing world thought so very much. A lot of the scientific evidence presented in Incognito is about the less well-known and unexpected ways in which our mind works – maybe these are the ultimate secrets to great brand loyalty, to reducing price sensitivity, and to influence buying behaviour?  Eagleman does a very good job at talking through stunning evidence from psychological and neuro-research to then support his neural theory of the ‘team of rivals’. Let’s steal a couple of his examples for how powerful unconscious processing can be, just to make this blog a teeny bit more entertaining.


A recent strand of studies in social psychology has dealt with the perplexing but seemingly robust effect of implicit egotism which is the phenomenon that we tend to like things more if they somehow appear connected to ourselves, however shallow that connection may be. For example, more often than expected by chance people get married to a partner with a name that starts with the same letter as their own name. Janes marry Jasons, Richards go with Rachels, and Amys prefers Alexes (Jones et al., J Personality Social Psychology, 2004). Similarly, people prefer a tea brand in a tasting session if it shares a few letters with their own first name. The same tea with a very different name appears less tasty to us (Brendl et al., J Consumer Research, 2005). I find this example is easier to buy because the choice between tea brands usually doesn’t have far-reaching consequences. But  implicit egotism also affects choices that do bear huge consequences for the rest of an individual’s life such as choosing a profession (I leave it up to your judgement how this compares to choosing a spouse in terms of the severity of the consequences): A team of US-American social psychologists went through a large number of professional membership directories and found that being named Denis or Denise makes you more likely to become a dentist while for Lauras and Lawrences their career might rather be in law (Pelham et al., J Personality Social Psychology, 2002). Of course virtually no-one is aware of the effect that your name can have on the choices you make which makes this effect absolutely implicit. To think that such an arbitrary thing like your name has effects on such an important thing as the career you choose is almost insulting if we like to think that at least the important choices we make are partly guided by our free will.  To be fair, even though significant in very large samples, the effects of implicit egotism are generally very small. But maybe that is the realm to which advertising is mainly confined to anyway. Maybe all the advertising can really do is to act as one more competing voice in this parliament of rivals and if we are lucky then this one additional voice can tip the balance for one purchasing decision over another one that was almost equally likely.


So, after listening to what Eagleman had to say, how can advertisers and marketers turn this new understanding of how the brain works into optimising their campaigns? When asked precisely that question at the book launch Eagleman replied that enhancing all aspects of marketing communication (e.g. brand loyalty, USPs, short-term benefits, long-term strategies etc.) would be a sensible thing to do. As the main reason for this strategy Eagleman points out that the target groups for most products and brands are usually very heterogeneous and you need different advertising messages to tip the balance in different people. But to be honest his answer left some of the experienced admen in the audience a bit perplexed knowing that this ‘jack-of-all-trades’ approach only works well for very few products and very few brands.

But then, have I mentioned that Incognito is not at all about marketing but neuroscience?