Science - August 28, 2012

MRI scan predicts consumer preferences

A new method of analysing brain scans predicts with 62 percent success the choices consumers will make. The ultimate aim of this approach is an early forecast of a product's chances of success on the market.

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Scientists can predict fairly accurately which product consumers will choose by studying their brain activity. A Wageningen-Utrecht team discovered this by getting test subjects to choose between two pretend packets while lying in an MRI scanner. The research, led by nutrition researcher Paul Smeets, came out at the end of July in the journal PLoS One.
The researchers hope to be able to use their findings to determine a product's chances of success on the market at an early stage. During the experiment the researchers tested 20 healthy women aged between 18 and 30. Lying in an MRI scanner they saw two packets of the same product at short intervals. They chose which packet they found more attractive. With the help of a new statistical technique, MVPA, the researchers looked for correlations between brain activity and the choice made. The analysis method predicts with a 62 percent success rate which packet the consumers choose. That is not very much higher than the fifty-fifty success rate achieved by chance, which seems a feeble result for a relatively expensive experiment. But this is just a first step, says Nynke van der Laan, PhD researcher at the Imaging Institute in Utrecht. 'This approach is still completely new and the technique still has to develop further.'
Controversial
The use of MRI scanners in marketing research, known as neuromarketing, is on the rise. Neuromarketing can potentially save money because you can use it in the early stages of design. What is more, researchers hope to uncover 'hidden information' with which they can estimate consumer preferences better than they can through traditional marketing research. 'Using neuromarketing research we hope of course eventually to be able to predict the success of products on the market', says Van der Laan. 'But my work focuses on answering the fundamental question of how our brains make a choice.'
This kind of spying on the brain is ethically controversial, but Van der Laan believes the criticism is largely based on prejudices. 'People think you are reading their minds with neuromarketing,' she says, 'in order to manipulate their thoughts.' But in her view neuromarketing is an extension of traditional marketing research, such as questions about which packet a consumer thinks more attractive. 'Anyway, we are not reading their thoughts; the technique looks for statistical correlations.' RR
 
 

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