Variety is the spice of life – even if it is old wine sold in a new skin

Scientific research shows humans seek out new experiences – but common sense says that the novelty soon wears off if the promise is not delivered on

It’s comforting to know that in this restless, fast-changing world, some things are as fixed and dependable as the pole star itself. Fashions may come come and fashions may go, but, in the academic mind, advertising remains an immutable excrescence – a dark thing, manipulative, sinister and an affront to reason.

Never mind that science itself is far from pure, and is not above twisting the facts to suit the case, as in the great smoking and global-warming horrors. And never mind that it is engaged in some pretty beastly practices involving the amalgamation of bovine and human tissue. Science gets away with it because it purports to be objective and accurate.

It should not, therefore, surprise us when a scientist engaged in research into the workings of the human mind seizes the opportunity to take a swipe at advertising. The lady in question is Dr Bianca C Wittmann of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London. Now it stands to reason that if you put a woman such as she, learned in neuroimaging, into a room containing a neuroimaging machine, she won’t be able to keep her hands off it. Faster than you can say synapse, she will be wiring up volunteers, setting them tasks, and watching as bits of their brains flash like traffic lights. All good fun and no harm done. None of us wants an idle neuroimager on our hands, what with money being tight and resources scarce.

Little did passers-by scurrying to and fro outside the Wellcome Trust Centre suspect that behind those walls sat “adult subjects”, performing “carefully-designed choice tasks”, while attached to functional, magnetic-resonance imaging machines.

At any rate, the volunteers played a game in which the goal wasto accumulate money. The researchers showed players four pictures, one of which, if chosen, would win a cash reward. The images were taken from a bank of 20 postcards, each featuring a different mountain scene. As the game went on, participants learned which images hadthe highest value.

When a subject selected a card and saw it was of high value, a region in his or her brain called the ventral striatum lit up like a roman candle – a visible cerebral reaction to the prospect of a cash prize.

Later in the game Dr Wittmann inserted new images into the mix. And what do you know? The participants chose the fresh cards over the old ones, including the known cash-winners.

What are we to make of that? Well, according to Dr Wittmann, it shows that novel objects perk up the reward system of our brains, indicating that our sense of adventure may be just as tempting as cash and other prizes in the choices we make.

“Seeking new and unfamiliar experiences is a fundamental behavioural tendency in humans and animals,” she says. “It makes sense to try new options as they may prove advantageous in the long run. For example, a monkey who chooses to deviate from its diet of bananas, even if this involves moving to an unfamiliar part of the forest and eating a new type of food, may find its diet enriched and more nutritious.”

Not content to stick with monkeys, she turned on those other apes, the advertisers, whose tricks include repackaging goods to boost sagging sales. “I might have my own favourite choice of chocolate bar,” she says, “but if I see a different bar, repackaged, advertising its new, improved flavour, my search for novel experiences may encourage me to move away from my usual choice. This introduces the danger of being sold old wine in a new skin, and is something that marketing departments take advantage of.”

Thank heaven for Baba Shiv, professor of marketing at Stanford University’s School of Business and a graduate of the school of common sense. “Although novelty may temporarily boost sales,” he says, “they will likely slump again once customers realise that nothing but the packaging has changed.” And to think, he managed that insight without wiring anybody to anything.

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