Marketers should study cognitive neuroscience…

Due to advancements in imaging and experimental technologies, cognitive neuroscience is currently undergoing a renaissance in which our understanding of the way the mind works is growing very rapidly on a yearly basis. That same understanding can vastly enhance our effectiveness as marketers, granted that we pay attention to it, connect the dots, and then run some of our own experiments 🙂

Understanding how the mind works can, in the best case, help us make extraordinary campaigns, and in the worst case, help us avoid common pitfalls that run against the grain of cognitive behavior.

Over the past few months, I have been on a bit of a cognitive neuroscience binge, reading books about how our minds work, while sneaking off to lectures at MIT in between my MBA classes at Babson. Here are some of the things I have learned.

Marketing lessons from cognitive neuroscience:

*  Reinforce message through dimensional repetition, leaving a subtle puzzle to be solved

*  Emotion drives decision, so weave in emotional appeals, even in B2B marketing

*  Randomness doesn’t build attribution (Pay attention, Skittles). Be surprising and interesting, but not random

*  Get behind one “teams of rivals”

Eagleman [referenced below] posits that when we argue with ourselves about a particular decision, teams of rival understanding in our minds battle for control of a particular decision. The simplest but also somewhat wrong understanding of this is the commonly-stated argument between the left (rational) brain and the right (emotional) brain. Of course, nothing organic is binary and our brains are much more dimensional than that, so there may actually be dozens of rival “mental models” competing for a particular decision. The strongest teams (mental models) are those that have been reinforced the most over time through patternicity. Thus, it would make sense that good marketing should appeal to common buried understandings of situations in people’s mind, taking them in new directions with emotional appeals.

Some of the science behind it:

Probability Matching

Nature, or evolution as it turns out, favors probability-matching behavior in organisms. This means that whether you are a chicken or a human being, you have a propensity to match your behavior to the probability of a desired outcome. The simplest test, as Professor Andrew Lo of MIT puts it, is if you sit a person down and ask her/him to predict the outcome of a coin toss, they will likely guess a 50/50 probability between heads and tails. In other words, something like HTHTHTHTHTHTHTHT (with variations of course). Now if that coin was rigged to deliver Heads 75% of the time and tails 25% of the time, that person would begin to adjust their guessing patterns to 75% heads and 25% tails after a while, without even consciously knowing it. Even though the optimal guessing pattern (one which yields the highest chances of guessing correctly) might be to guess heads all of the time, humans will always throw in a few “tails” guesses proportionally to the pattern they notice. This tendency has the brilliant outcome of optimizing results for the survival of a population, but not necessarily the survival of any one individual.

Our Brains as Pattern Recognition Machines

Michael Shermer, in a book I recently read (and highly recommend) called “The Believing Brain,” coins this term as patternicity. All living creatures, to varying degrees, operate by recognizing patterns in life and reacting to those patterns to optimize outcomes. Shermer gives a fun example of an experiment where chickens were rewarded with grain at random intervals; the scientists noticed that the chickens developed very weird behaviors like walking sideways or doing weird turns. As it turned out, those actions were precisely the same ones the chickens were doing at the moment they were being rewarded. Thus the chickens were trying to recognize a pattern and [falsely] attribute it to the behavior they were doing when they got what they wanted. They were under the [biologically-programmed) illusion that their behavior always influenced the world around them.

Patternicity Creates Zombie Routines, Consciousness is a Small Part of Who We Are

Taking this understanding to another level, David Eagleman writes in his newest book, Incognito, that patternicity encodes patterns over time into our subconscious, making learning experiences such as driving a car or playing tennis, a part of automatic “zombie” routines. He posits that our personalities, our behaviors and even our futures are in large part determined the zombie routines that make up our minds, which are themselves influenced by both biology (nature) and our environment (nurture). Consciousness represents our daily calibration device, which directs our brains toward problem-solving goals. This is the reason that you might start thinking about a problem before you go to sleep at night, and wake up the next morning with the solution. It is also the same reason that you have wacky dreams that make no sense but often represent subconscious patterns of understanding buried deep within our brains (kudos to Sigmund Freud for intuiting this).

There are a lot of interesting existential questions that arise from all of this, extending well beyond the realm of marketing, to questions such as who we are and the meaning of our lives:

What is consciousness?

Is there such a thing as free will, or are we just a bunch of zombie routines?

Can everything we are, truly be reduced to the biology of our brain as it interacts with the environment?

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2 Responses to Marketers should study cognitive neuroscience…

  1. Anonymous says:

    I agree with your observations and those of the writers. Far too often marketers, and companies on strategic levels, focus on cognitive rational comprehension for a decision process. In fact humans purchase for two reasons: to resolve/solve a problem or to feel good. Both are emotional responses, one is time pressure and sense of security the second is self-explanatory. Marketing/selling is gently leading a prospect down the path to arrive at either of these decision points.

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