Science never quite keeps up with people’s complex motives

neuronsWhile human behaviour is often instinctive, we can override it and resist manipulation, if the marketer’s intentions seem suspect

If I slap you in the face, certain parts of your brain flare into activity. Surprisingly, if you watch me slap somebody else in the face, the same areas of your brain light up. And, if you watch a film of me slapping someone, the same areas of your brain still light up.

Apparently, human beings have special “mirror neurons” in their brains which, scientists hypothesise, help us empathise with other peoples’ experiences and learn from one another. Mirror neurons may be one of the reasons why the media – especially film and TV – are such a powerful force in our society.

Of course, there’s a big difference between being slapped, watching someone being slapped in real life and watching a film of someone being slapped. Even if our conscious attention is equally absorbed by all three, we can tell which is which. That’s because our conscious attention only accounts for about one millionth of our brains’ information processing activity. The rest is devoted to unconscious environmental monitoring – the stuff we “sense” but don’t register, such as sound, smell, touch, taste and so on. Thanks to them, we know we’re watching film rather than having a fight, so even though the same parts of the brain are activated, we feel differently about them.

So what about our emotions’ role in decision-making? There is a long-standing myth that humans are “rational”; that is, we carefully collect, weigh and sift all the facts and then make a logical decision on the basis of these facts and only these facts. If emotion is present, it only gets in the way, to distort the proper workings of rationality. The opposite is closer to the truth. It turns out that most human decisions are powerfully connected to primeval and compelling emotions of survival. Emotions are connected to the instinct to flee danger and to approach opportunity (for sex, food and so on). These emotions are not an interference, but a foundation of our decision-making. People with certain types of brain damage, whose feeling of these emotions is impaired, often find decision-making impossibly difficult.

Discoveries such as these go a long way to explaining the nature and power of marketing. Take a trivial example. Take two ads with exactly the same copy. One has snakes slithering around in the background, but not enough to be consciously noticed (instinct: flee). The other has beautiful, smiling faces (instinct: approach). Guess which one generates the better response? Marketers discovered things like this yonks ago through simple trial and error. Now boffins in laboratories are fleshing out how and why.

Does this mean that “neuromarketing” is set to become the next holy grail of marketing, delivering our wildest dreams of successful influence? Before you get carried away, consider some pointers in a different direction.


Two people are playing a trust game. They can either reward each other for being trustworthy or punish each other for betraying trust. If they decide to trust each other, they feel good about it. It’s no fantasy. The feeling has a physiological basis. It’s created by a surge of oxytocin, a polypeptide which is unique to mammals and induces a sense of pleasure. Oxytocin is strongly associated with caressing, grooming and stroking (but not sex), and helps to create bonds of trust between people.

Now repeat this experiment with exactly the same rewards and punishments, except this time play it between a human being and a computer. In this case, two things happen. First, people become much more untrustworthy. Second, the level of oxytocin in their blood remains unchanged. This suggests that when people make decisions, their minds aren’t only calculating costs and benefits. They are also assessing the motives and intentions of the other party and responding accordingly.

As infants, we start developing this capacity – what psychologists call a theory of mind – around the age of four. From then on we hardly ever judge actions purely at face value. We look behind the facade to consider goals, beliefs, motives and intentions. Often our real response is to the motives and intentions, not the action itself. If we deem the other party to have suspect motives, we push them away mentally because we don’t trust them.

Our ability to “read” social situations is also surprisingly powerful. Most people are lost in seconds if you present them with a problem stated in strict, logical terms (if A this and B that, and A and B are related in this way, for example). But, if you restate exactly the same problem with the same logical structure in terms of trust, fairness, status and so on, even the most “stupid” people solve it quickly.

Now add another discovery to the mix. The bits of the brain that drive the raw emotions of instinctive liking and disliking, or attraction and repulsion, are common to most animals. Rats and crocodiles have them too. But we humans also have an overgrown frontal lobe which kicks into action when we stop to think. When this happens, instincts flaring up inside us – to slap me back, for example – can be and often are over-ridden. We think the better of it. That’s why people often respond to a marketing initiative in one way when on auto-pilot and in completely different ways when they think about it a little more.

The fascinating thing about this research is that it points both ways. If you think the marketer’s job is to change peoples’ attitudes and behaviours, then brain and mind research is beginning to show how and why attempts to do so often succeed. At the same time, however, it’s also showing how and why people become aware of and resist such attempts, often successfully.


Even the same psychological phenomena can tip either way. Take people’s desire for “congruence” – to make sense of things that don’t quite add up. Our desire for congruence explains why we sometimes post-rationalise purchases with silly explanations: “I bought that BMW because of its superior engineering”. On the other hand, as Tim Routledge of the Newcomen Group explained to a conference on neuromarketing last week, marketers’ tendency to stimulate interest in their products by hyperbole creates a mismatch between expectation and reality that destroys congruence and therefore trust. In fact, he claimed, “marketing that abandons hyperbole in favour of the truth actually outperforms orthodox marketing in sales terms when linked to experience.”

Routledge may or may not be right. The point is, there’s lots to learn here. If we merely look to scientific research for confirmation of things we already believe, we may miss what it really has to teach us. v


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