Is there a future for you in neuromarketing? Don’t count on it just yet, even if you trust the nascent science of using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to uncover, perhaps even influence, how consumers choose among shampoos, tortilla chips, or hedge funds.
Neuromarketing made a national news splash in 2003, when Read Montague of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, used functional MRI (fMRI) technology to explain a famous Coke-Pepsi conundrum: The two sodas are very similar in chemical composition and there’s little difference in taste, yet Coke maintains its market dominance. Montague and colleagues found that, both in blind taste tests and in fMRI scans of a brain region associated with taste, subjects were evenly divided in their preference for the two brands. But when Montague’s subjects knew they were drinking Coke, brain centers linked to emotion and cognitive control were disproportionately stimulated–which suggested that the powerful cultural wallop of the Coke brand can override the taste buds.
Business was intrigued, and it looked at the time as if neuromarketing might become a job engine for Ph.D.s and MBAs able to close the intellectual gap between brain science and market research. Neuroeconomics, the parent discipline that explores links between the brain and economic behavior, seemed poised to make a triumphant leap from academe to Madison Avenue.
A family of psychologists
Four years later, it’s still poised. Jordan Knight, a junior at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (and also, adventitiously, a champion pole-vaulter on the university’s track team), says he’s determined to pursue graduate study and a career track in the neuromarketing field. He’s a business major but hails from a family of psychologists. His background left him frustrated with his first organization-and-management class at Emory: “I found business professors were dumbfounded to have someone ask about psychology.”
Not that there hasn’t been progress in research. A recent study at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, led by Brian Knutson and published in Neuron, monitored subjects’ brain activity as they shopped online and bought a series of products worth up to $80. Attraction to a product strongly correlated with activity in the nucleus accumbens, which seems to mediate the expectation of pleasure. Toohigh prices, on the other hand, stimulated the insula, which anticipates painful stimuli, and quieted the mesial prefrontal cortex, a phenomenon linked to disappointment when a hoped-for reward fails to materialize. MRI readings of these regions predicted whether the subject rejected or bought a product. This is the first time researchers have been able to connect brain activity with a real-life consumer decision.
Ambivalent about manipulating people
Scott Rick, a co-author of this study and a graduate student in the Social and Decision Sciences Department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was an economics major as an undergraduate. But he revels in neuromarketing’s interdisciplinary links between neurophysiology and economics. “This field attracts people who are uninterested in boundaries,” Rick says. Yet there is one boundary Rick is not eager to cross: “I’m ambivalent about teaming up with companies to help manipulate people,” he says. Instead, he would like an academic career at a business school, but he hasn’t found such jobs plentiful. He is choosing at the moment between postdoc offers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and the California Institute of Technology, which has a cadre of graduate faculty members interested in the field.
George Loewenstein, Rick’s adviser, concedes that so far there’s really no clear career trajectory for an aspiring neuromarketer. He’s not wholly unhappy about that. “If a graduate student in neuroeconomics ended up in industry, that would be a disappointment,” Loewenstein says. “The reality is that when you do marketing, you are a slave to economic interests, to people who want to promote certain goods and services.”
That gulf in attitudes between academe and Madison Avenue, proverbially wide, still seems to be restraining neuromarketing from making its widely anticipated jump from the laboratory to the marketing department.