The Brain: Marketing To Your Mind

With new scanning technologies, smart companies may soon sell their products directly to the decider in chief: the brain itself

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Photo-Illustration for TIME by Mark Hooper

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Stanford neuroscientist Brian Knutson has zeroed in on a more primitive aspect of making choices. "We come equipped to assess potentially good things and potentially bad things," he says. "There should be stuff in your brain that promotes your survival, whether you have learned those things or not--such as being scared of the dark or the unknown." Knutson calls these anticipatory emotions, and he believes that even before the cognitive areas of the brain are brought in to assess options, these more intuitive and emotional regions are already priming the decision-making process and can foreshadow the outcome. Such primitive triggers almost certainly afforded survival advantages to our ancestors when they decided which plants to pick or which caves to enter, but Knutson surmises that vestiges of this system are at work as we make more mundane choices at the mall. There, it's the match between the value of a product and its price that triggers an anticipation of pleasure or pain.

To test his theory, Knutson and his team devised a way to mimic these same intuitive reactions in the lab. He gave subjects $20 each and, while they were in the fMRI machine, presented them with pictures of 80 products, each followed by a price. Subjects then had the option of purchasing each item on display. As they viewed products they preferred, Knutson saw activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain involved in anticipating pleasant outcomes. If, on the other hand, the subjects thought the price of these items was too high, there was increased activity in the insula-- an area involved in anticipating pain. "The idea is that if you can look into people's brains right before they make certain decisions, you can get a handle on these two feelings and do a better job of predicting what they are about to do," Knutson says. "I believe anticipatory emotions not only bias but drive decision making."

All of this, of course, is whirring along at the brain's split-second pace, and as imaging technology improves, Knutson is hopeful that he and others will be able to see in even more detail the circuits in the brain activated during a decision. Already, according to Montague, these images have revealed surprising things about how the brain pares down the decision-making process by setting up shortcuts to make its analysis more efficient. To save time, the brain doesn't run through the laundry list of risks, benefits and value judgments each time. Whenever it can, it relies on a type of "quick key" that takes advantage of experiences and stored information. That's where things like brands, familiarity and trust come in--they're a shortcut for knowing what to expect. "You run from the devil you know," says Montague. "And you run to the brand that you know, because to sit there and deliberate chews up time, and that makes you less efficient than the next guy."

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