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Beware The Brain-Science Backlash

After decades of watching neuroscience move from being a strange stepsister of psychology to cutting-edge medical research, the inevitable backlash is in full swing.


By David Forbes, Ph.D.


It’s official: After decades of watching neuroscience move from being a strange stepsister of psychology to cutting-edge medical research, the inevitable backlash is in full swing.

The year’s not even over, and already, such books as Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience; A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves, and Brain Imaging: What it Can (and Cannot) Tell Us About Consciousness have hit the shelves. There are cheeky blogs debunking neuropsuedoscience, like NeuroBollocks. And in the ultimate proof that skepticism is top of mind, The New Yorker says it’s so. Check out Gary Marcus’ recent The Problem With The Neuroscience Backlash.

The reason there is such an onslaught of accusations about neuroscience overreaching itself is because so many people have, in fact, overreached. As this approach to thinking about people and human behavior grew increasingly popular, practitioners of neuroscience felt that natural urge to “run with the ball” – making increasingly expansive and provocative claims about the powers of the science . Most famously, neuromarketers informed Frito Lay that women looking at their snack packages felt “guilty” – based on observed activity in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulated cortex. Frito Lay reacted to this information by making major changes in its snack packaging. The problem was that academic neuroscientists will tell you that there is no area of the brain that can be associated with guilt – and that the anterior cingulate cortex has been associated with error detection – fairly different from the concept of guilt. Using “reverse inference” to translate FMRI patterns into psychological concepts such as guilt or desire can only lead to marketing conclusions that are neither certain nor credible. Brain scans don’t yet offer the insights we need to formulate marketing strategies. We are doubtless many years away – if it will ever be possible – from knowing which neurons govern such psychological phenomena as guilt or generosity or ambition.

Meanwhile, other practitioners of business research recognized that the neuroscience idea was “hot”, and soon it seemed that everyone has some type of “neuroscience” in their product mix. All of this naturally winds up with trouble. As legitimate practitioners of FMRI research stretched the science beyond its current limits, and as faux “neuroscientists” with no basis for their claim crowd onto the stage, it is only natural that the term would begin to be attached to shaky or even completely bogus science. This activity is a natural target for a public backlash.

The customers of neuroscience have also played a role in creating the backlash against neuroscience. Many new technologies in science are initially greeted with over-strong levels of enthusiasm, as people hope that “finally” some of the frustrating inadequacies of current methods might be overcome – including the current heavy reliance on some form of self report to measure emotional enthusiasm. The business community pounced on brain research with delight as soon as it appeared: after all those years of parsing what consumers told us in subjective focus group results, there was suddenly science. This made for a very welcoming audience to those who might exaggerate the powers of the new scientific technology, and a potentially gullible audience for those attempting to masquerade as practitioners of the new. Overly enthusiastic individuals who climbed uncritically onto the “next new thing” were bound to get disappointed – and hence the fuel for the backlash.

The backlash raises important issues, and hopefully sends signals to practitioners and would-be customers alike about the importance of reasonable conservatism in making claims for a new science, and about the need for customers to exercise critical judgment in evaluating any new scientific technology as a possible solution to research challenges. Going forward it is critical that researchers eliminate any suggestion of smoke-and-mirrors from our claims, and resist the urge to hyperbolize in the face of public enthusiasm.

The brain is a wondrous organ, and the study of neurophysiology and neuropsychology represents a huge forefront in psychological science today. But right now, we don’t have a perfect map of what happens in the human brain. We barely have a map at all. President Barack Obama’s $100 million funding for the Brain Initiative earlier this year is great news for all of us who are interested in the brain. The more we know, the more inferences we will be able to make about human emotion, thought and behavior.

At this point, we need to move carefully so as to benefit from the promise of this new science without creating overpromise. For example, Sands Research uses EEG to measure increased attention and arousal. They found that ads that both build and sustain attention and arousal are more effective than those that fail to maintain this activity. In one famous study, this technique was used to evaluate a series of Super Bowl ads finding one ad in particular that was associated with stronger EEG responses than any previously had ever tested. This ad subsequently generated over 6.8 billion worldwide impressions, 50 million views online, massively increased traffic to the brand website, and directly contributed to North American sales. Using simple and straightforward neuroscience measures, and drawing conservative claims, Sands effectively used neuroscience to help the client.

Only with this kind of careful and conservative application of neuroscience in market research will we be able to ensure that marketers do not heave the baby out with the bathwater, as they react to disappointing results from claims that were wildly premature.

I believe the focus should be primarily on developing measures and methods that leverage the basic empirical findings of neuroscience (such as the neuropsychology of image processing) to craft emotional research tools that get beyond the problems of simple self report. Attempting to stretch our understanding of functional neuroanatomy beyond the bounds of current scientific consensus will only lead to accusations of chicanery from the core of the scientific community.  Specific emotional phenomena that marketers seek to create in their audiences emerge from interactions among a massive web of neurons, with vast numbers of potential connections that are currently well outside our functional neuroanatomical understanding. (The latest count, in case you were wondering, is that the typical adult brain contains 86 billion neurons, and then about the same number of glial cells helping connect these neurons.) If we are ever able to point to the neurology of feeling the drive for achievement, or of experiencing the urge to nurture one’s family, that will be a very long way off.

So as with all science, we must temper enthusiasm with caution, we must push the envelope of our methods without tearing it wide open. Neuroscience will surely point the way to greater self-knowledge for the human race, and greater opportunities for the whole of human culture – including business and marketing. I close with somewhat famous watchwords that are appropriate for those who would practice (or purchase) neuroscience: “If your mind is too open, your brain may fall out.”

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17 responses to “Beware The Brain-Science Backlash

  1. Your last paragraph says it best, David – as with all science, we must temper enthusiasm with caution… Marketing researchers seem to be caught between the need to be scientists (of a sort) and the need to sell stuff. This time, we went too far on the latter, not enough on the former.

  2. I David,

    I respect Derek helper of socialtriggers, combining psychology with marketing…I’m inclined to agree with your postulation stated in the above post..quote below “Neuroscience will surely point the way to greater self-knowledge for the human race, and greater opportunities for the whole of human culture”…but surely how can it be effectively harness to move content/digital marketing forward.

    Thanks David for sharing

  3. When my son was five months old he started having seizures. I was told a very grim picture by pediatricians, nurses etc. that concluded he would be one step above a vegetable. The neurologist was the only one to say “we don’t know”. My son went on to be a star athlete and to graduate at the top of his college class. The point being that even experienced clinicians don’t understand brain chemistry very well.

    One of the challenges with using MRI and CT scanning for response interpretation is that the tools were developed to identify anomalies, not to monitor normal activity. Unlike correlative statistical data, a high number of people with a similar MRI response is not necessarily indicative of a similar interpretation of the stimulus. A particular area of the brain may be stimulated across the board but it’s what they do in response to the stimulus that matters. For instance, some people watching a violent movie may exhibit high levels of fear during the movie but like the experience while others are truly terrified.

    The brain essentially distributes responsibility to tactile senses and relies on past experience for interpretation. Therefore reactions to stimulus change when we are hot, cold, happy, sad, tired, etc. Those reactions are also influenced by, and unique to, our body chemistry. 90% of our brain development occurs before our first birthday and the experiences we have during that time develop patterned responses that influence our reactions to stimulus throughout our life.

    Neurological testing is a snapshot at best and very conditional. Even when you have similar physical response, it “doesn’t mean that the emotional response was the same or that it even registers beyond the moment in context of other priorities.

    Instead of neurology maybe testing the ability to imprint??? I love the Frito Bandito and to this day think of it when I see a Frito. On the flip side, I used to frequent a certain sandwich shop until they ran commercials about a bear and a poodle in the same room. I never went there again because I thought of it every time I saw their logo. Just a thought….

  4. Thanks for writing this David. There are some very important themes here. Your commentary reinforces the need for our industry to establish clear guidelines on which advanced methods are valid for revealing insights on specific business questions.

  5. David, what a marvelous post you have just written. We’ve been waiting for some cogent, well articulated, disciplined thinking, presented in felicitous prose. Down with bombast.

    Yes, there is enormous potential in neuromarketing, potential to understand the way the brain ‘works’ with respect to ‘real,’ ecologically valid stimuli (foods, ads, what have you).

    Yes, we tend to overreach. Why? Is it money? Is it an opportunity to exploit a new territory, in hopes of securing a business advantage? Is it naivete? Gullibility? The desire to be on the cutting edge of something? The desire for wonderful cocktail and conference talk? Why do we fall into these traps where we overreach, again and again and again.

    David, again, thank you. Were the field to be populated by more critical thinking, we might have snacks, no guilt, and knowledge , all wrapped up into one tidy package.

    I for one will withhold my enthusiasm for neuromarketing until it becomes less avant-garde, less exciting, less au courant (a lot of less), and becomes more workaday, simple, and production oriented. In simpler terms, until neuromarketing starts to bore..

  6. Great article! As someone who refers to myself as a “practical” innovator as well as an early adopter of neuroscience in marketing research – I’m in complete agreement. I’ve found a number of techniques to be quite useful as indicators of engagement with stimuli. But I see these measures as largely diagnostic and am skeptical of over stating the use of these tools and the insights they can give us into the minds of our customers

  7. Thanks for a very well written and balanced article. Even with my highly vested interest as both an academic and commercial provider, I completely agree: “neuro” has been equivalent to BS, and the culprit has been exactly the faux “neuroscientists” around.

    The way I see it, it’s not the science that is missing. Not at all! It’s the overstretching of neuroscience to be a golden bullet that is wrong. It’s based on a misunderstanding an hyped up representation of true science. Just as traditional MR methods are incomplete to understand consumer behaviour, so is consumer neuromarketing only one side of the store. With traditional and neuro, we have two feet to stand on.

    And again: the science is already there. If you want to understand attention, emotional response, motivation and cognitive load in consumers, there is no need to invent a new fancy wheel. These metrics are already well documented and reliable. But it does require true scientists to work out the protocols. And that is by far the biggest challenge. It requires people who both understands the brain, the methods AND the mind, and are able to provide metrics that are reliable, valid and make sense to the user. It’s a tall order but absolutely doable.

    Finally, one big problem IMO with this whole thing is the obvious need that companies see in protecting their IP. The recent news that a brain scan can nail down the “right price” is still hidden in a mist of neurobabble and proprietary codes. When it comes to neuroscience and neurometrics, I find this absolutely unacceptable. Why should anybody pay a company to make a measurement in which the actual calculations are secret and not even documented beyond a news headline? I find such “paternalistic” approaches demeaning to the client. Therein lies the backlash, not the science!

  8. Thank you, David – You scope out very reasonably what should and should not be expected from FRMI research.

    I think marketing communities tend to overreach new technologies and approaches because, in the context of change management, there are inherent rewards to do so. New thinking gets front page headlines; the harder work of assessing real value often is relegated to the back pages. Of course, this environment is itself fuelled by top management quite rightly trying to drive value through innovation in organisations that would otherwise devolve through their own inertia.

    I do wonder about your two examples, though. In the Frito Lay case, you make it clear that the interpretation of the results were muddled. Perhaps guilt is an easier concept for non-specialists to understand than error detection. However, my understanding is that the changes made as a result of this erroneous conclusion still led to a 10% sales increase. Might it be instructive to understand what unwittingly went right in this case as well?

    On the other hand, in the Sands example, you mention that, “This ad subsequently generated over 6.8 billion worldwide impressions, 50 million views online, massively increased traffic to the brand website, and directly contributed to North American sales.” Actually, viral notwithstanding, ad impressions are generated mainly by media investment, and even a mediocre ad with enough visibility will drive traffic and sales. So while you make the point that new science can be used to help clients without over promise, perhaps the real question in this case is whether the method improves on existing measures of predictability for copy testing. Otherwise, it may again be another case of new is better because it is new.

  9. Yes David but, not that anything you have written diminishes the profession’s need to continue the journey. We cannot decide without an emotional catalyst. Marketers need to know what are the discrete emotions that drive consumption behaviour and be able to measure the ability of brands and communications to elicit these emotions. The most promising frontier remains implicit measurement defined by reaction time. The Forethought Feelings scale is implicit and identifies the discrete emotions driving consumption behaviour. Its not neuroscience or neuromarketing – it marketing research!

  10. Well said, David. This is a well written and reasoned argument for being prudent about the approach to and use of neuroscience in market research. (It also stands as good advice in general.) It is easy to become enamored with a new approach, but not discriminate regarding its value in providing true meaning and insight. Those of us in the research profession should moderate our attraction to that which sparkles because it may just be fools’ gold. “Trust, but verify” should perhaps be “verify, then trust” when considering a novel approach.

  11. Dear Dr. Forbes,

    Upon reading your piece a second time, I become wary that it can actually be misleading to many readers. While “neuroskepticism” can be a reasonable stance towards the neurobabble we see around, the implications of the approach alluded to in this post is basically to throw the baby out with the bathwater, just as David Brooks did in his NY Times review. My issue here is that the argument occurs at the wrong level.

    Of course, it has not escaped my attention that Dr. Forbes’ own approach to, e.g., human motivation is related to what can be classified as emergentism, i.e., that human capacities cannot be reduced to its smaller constituents (the brain). Being an eliminative materialist and a reductionist, suffice to say that I disagree about the basic view of the human mind and its constituents.

    Basically, I find the neuroskeptic account to make too many straw man arguments against neuroscience. The problem is NOT neuroscience – which is a viable and most relevant approach to understand the human mind and it’s foundations (and beyond). The problem IS that when it is popularized and commercialized, neuroscience insights and methods are taken hostage and misused. The problem is the misuse of good science, not the actual science in itself.

    Thus, discarding neuroscience based on it’s erroneous representation and use in business is equally and utterly wrong. It leads a debate at a non-scientific and pop-science level. I find this trend equally disturbing to the actual malpractice.

    Even at the outset, calling neuroscience the “strange stepsister of psychology” is highly misleading. Benchmarking neuroscience as a branch of psychology is simplistic to the degree of being pseudoscientific babble. The whole reason we have people, like myself, trained as neuropsychologists is exactly because there is a clear realization and utility of such interdisciplinary marriage. Understanding the brain bases of the mind has – non-trivial as such efforts are – provided us with a deeper understanding of the human mind and our behaviour.

    To me, the real culprit is the simplification seen in the media and by the majority of the commercialized uses of neuroscience. This is where I find the criticism should focus, not on the science itself. Those who think that a neuroscience of the mind should be abandoned would indeed be in a decimated minority.

    The problem with neuroscience is that it has too much of an appeal – it is basically too successful in providing new insights to the mind. Not the converse. The problem is when we read books like “Brandwashed”, “Buyology” and “The Buying Brain” we are misled by neurobabble and non-scientific overstretching. This is where the criticism should set in, not towards a valid and insightful science that has provided us with tremendous insights within less than two decades.

  12. Thomas,
    Thank you for your thought provoking comments. Sorry for my belated response.

    I too think that neuroscience represents a strong thread in the future of psychology, and that understanding the brain will ultimately lead toward understanding the mind. I too agree that the main issue is not with legitimate neuroscience, but with “neurobabble” that stretches the discipline to its breaking point by claiming it as a panacea for all business research challenges. I too agree that we must be very careful to preserve the (extremely promising) “baby” of current neuroscience from being discarded with the “bathwater” of neuroscammers.
    I might want to disagree a bit with you on the “reductionist/emergentist” issue. We have seen other periods in psychology where a reductionist agenda has been unable to deliver on the needs of the world to understand human psychology (e.g.: “it’s all observable behaviors and outcomes” as pursued by B.F.Skinner et. al.). I am not sure if I believe in principle that reductionism (I might call it atomism) is the ultimate best path to scientific understanding — this is a matter for philosophers of science (I believe they would tell us that we are working at different levels of organization.) I do believe in practice that it will be quite a while before neuroscience can answer all of the questions that business professionals have about how people think, feel, and act.
    By the way, I also agree with you that a difficult situation arises whenever science interfaces with commerce. Vested interests of scientists who also have agenda of aiding corporate profitability will always play rough with the open marketplace of ideas. I can’t say that I have a very good solution to this one – I would love to hear your thoughts.

  13. Dear David,
    Thanks for your response, and please excuse my equally belated one. I believe we’re pretty much on the same page here. On the reductionist/emergentist view, I see this as two separate issues.
    First, we have the question of epistemology, where I believe that our everyday and “folkish” terms – so often applied in business – are often too simplistic to provide true understanding of the processes at hand. Failure to use the correct terminology and proper level of description will eventually make us fail to see and solve a problem. While we do believe that we know what phenomena such as “attention” and “memory” refer to something we all know, careful scrutiny shows us that we barely have a grasp of what we are talking about. Attention and memory come in many forms, and we need to employ a more rigorous and detailed (“reductionist”) account to have a better understanding of the matters at hand. Failure to do so will leave us grasping in mists of nonsensical words and phrases.

    Second, one can refer to this as a question of ontology. I agree, we can leave this to philosophers, although I am personally inclined to combine the epistemology and ontology here. After all, maybe our words (“attention”, “memory”) are only insufficient approximations to have a common denominator but that fails miserably when we want to understand actual (consumer) behaviour. IMO, knowing the roots of choice is premium, and it is an empirical question what actually works best.

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