A Bad Week For Neuroscience

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For those of us in the business who are scientists, or have pretensions of being scientists, neuroscience is a ridiculously compelling concept. Science uses the term sui generis (because we can’t help but use Latin terms profusely and indiscriminately), which means “cannot be reduced to a lower concept”.  The ability to define the neurological processes, the lowest level of an individual’s response, to marketing concepts is a holy grail for us. If we can map the process to the response, we get away from asking people questions and all the uncertainty, all the biases, and all the controversy in our scientific endeavors.

So it is with both great sadness and a certain amount of smug self-satisfaction that I read two publications this past week that raise serious doubts and cast aspersions on neuroscience. The first is an article in Proceedings o f the National Academy of Sciences (no, I haven’t heard of it either) by Eklund, Nichols, and Knutsson called “Cluster failure: Why fMRI inferences for spatial extent have inflated false positive rates”. I give you fair warning – this article is as dense as they come, both from a neurological and a statistical perspective; it is not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, they summarize the issue and the results in a language we can all understand. The three most common statistical packages that analyze fMRI data have a positive bias in the range of 70%. That’s worth repeating – they found that 70% of the time these packages deliver a false positive and they call into question the results of some 40,000 fMRI studies. In practical terms, when someone tells you that this type of stimulus excites this area of the brain and that means it’s good or bad, they are likely wrong.

The other publication I read was the July 2016 issue of Quirk’s Marketing Research Review. I recognize that this is an advertiser-supported publication – it’s free to subscribers and I usually find at least one interesting article an issue in there – sometimes more. There’s an ad (on the inside back page) from a major marketing research supplier who will go unnamed, promoting their neuroscience business. The headline says, “Think your ad is good? We can make it GREAT. “ They use EEG, Biometrics, Facial Coding, Eye-Tracking, and Self-Report to “get at the truth of how people respond to your ad, so you can run your campaign with confidence.”

No, not really. They can tell you if there is or isn’t neurological stimulation and probably can tell you where in the ad the stimulation occurs or doesn’t occur. That will tell you two things – it generates some stimulation or not and does that stimulation occur when you think it should. Neither of these will make the ad great, or even good for that matter – it’s a report card. They can tell you whether it is more or less stimulating than other ads in your category that have been tested. They can tell you whether people liked the ad or not via facial coding and by asking them. That won’t make the ad great either. Why not? Simple – we don’t understand the relationship between neurological stimulation and purchasing and we barely understand the relationship between ad-liking and purchasing. At the end of the day, the question is whether advertising drives increased purchasing, and we have yet to establish the necessary linkages to define this neurologically. Research doesn’t make anything great – it tells us if it will likely be great.

I’ve argued for some time that neuromarketing is its own worst enemy, over-promising and under-delivering. Thankfully, we’ve seen less hyperbole in the last couple of years. Until this week.

Reference – www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1602413113

Originally published on www.greenbookblog.com on 8 August 2016