Neurononsense revisited: a new dawn?


Last night at a reception in memory of the late and great Ginny Valentine, an old buddy of mine asked me what I thought about the proliferation of neuromarketing techniques and the general air of "brain is best" in market research communities.

Perhaps I should have just referred him to David Penn of Conquest who is delighting in being the continuing scourge of snake-oil neuro-research sales persons: his "neuromania" schtick is coming to the MRS in March. Always good value.

Regular readers will know that – like David – I'm deeply suspicious of the willing misrepresentation of the science – of what is currently understood about brain activity and its relationship with behaviour (for example here and here)

Sure, we've got some general principles in place, we've far from the precise, mechanical descriptions that many vendors suggest.

What's more the reality of most human life – and most consumer choices – is social (whether or not the choice is made in the company of others): in much of modern life, we defer to the choices and enthusiasms of others. Trying to predict the behaviour of an isolated individual from the activity in his/her brain is missing the key variable shaping that choice.

Our brains are not – as we tend to think – just independent decision-making muscle – but rather evolved specifically as social organs (as Dunbar and Humphrey  long ago demonstrated – you might remember this more recent paper, too)

This is why this kind of research is so interesting: it explores the neuroscience of social interaction. Dare I suggest put neuromarketing on hold until the academics have got to grips with these – rather more important – factors in influencing behaviour?



  1. HolyCow
    February 8, 2012

    Lovely in many ways – look forward to hearing David’s take on it too. Personally I like the dichotomy between the fact that ‘behaviour’ has an observable output – yet the actual moment of decision making doesn’t. Both are valid in terms of lights going on in the brain – but it really depends on how you use it.
    ‘Neuromarketing’ by its very etymology is wrong on many levels. But that doesn’t mean that observable data of human response to stimulus might not be useful.
    In that sense, data is only useful in the context it is deployed within – to create a business out of it for marketeers was wrong-headed, its usefulness may lie elsewhere perhaps in medicine or a range of drivers of mental health – but it never really had a place in marketing. I hope it doesn’t disappear – rather that its application can be used where it can be most effective for the species.
    Behaviour change however – has never been solved by marketers – or theories of causation in primates (OK yes – limbic brain reverberations etc – but never empirical. Nudge and Behavioural Economics is simply about choice making – trade-offs – one choice is easier to act upon based on time and effort – ‘hyperbolic discounting’ for example – yet can never account for cultural cascades before they materialize in culture. We weren’t able to predict it then – and we won’t (hopefully) in the future.
    We can just understand the mechanism a bit more – but not be able to predict the outcome.
    Can’t wait to hear more.
    Hope your well

  2. Mentormate
    February 9, 2012

    Interestingly,discursive psychology as a discipline looks at psychological phenomena but through interaction and social action, and what is great about that is it means everything is, therefore, observable. And, as a result, it makes the data and insight much more accessible.
    In terms of the well-informed .v. badly-informed dimensions of Mark’s and Alex’s observations, discursive psychologists would be interested in the process by which information is shared, attention is gained, attitudes are formed through dialogical construction etc.
    This for me starts to blow the lid open on the mysterious world of cognitive and neuroscience. And for the better.