Inside the Mind of the Consumer


Declining response rates have a been a problem in survey research for a long time.  Now a study by Lori Foster Thompson of North Carolina State University, Zhen Zhang of Arizona State University, and Richard D. Arvey of National University of Singapore, there may be a genetic predisposition to decline to participate in surveys.  Or maybe not.

The study, “Genetic underpinnings of survey response,” is to be published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. A press release  from North Carolina State University quotes Dr. Foster:  “We wanted to know whether people are genetically predisposed to ignore requests for survey participation.  We found that there is a pretty strong genetic predisposition to not reply to surveys.”

The researchers  sent a survey to more that 1,000 sets of twins, some identical (and possessing identical DNA) and some fraternal (no more genetically similar than any two siblings).  The study found that the it was possible to predict the propensity to respond for one identical twin from the response (or non-response) of the other twin, but there was no such relationship for the fraternal twins.  The researchers “used quantitative genetic techniques to estimate the genetic, shared environmental, and nonshared environmental effects on people’s compliance with the request for survey participation” according to the paper abstract.

Notwithstanding the power of the right statistical methods, it’s very difficult to rule out plausible rival hypotheses in single generation familial inheritance studies.  I spent one summer during graduate school analyzing data from an adoption study attempting to prove the heritability of schizophrenia.  In addition to the adoption paradigm (that is, looking for differential incidence rates  among the biological and adoptive relatives of the adopted, afflicted individual), we have two types of twin studies–those that compare identical twins reared apart and those that compare sets of identical twins with sets of fraternal twins, as in this case.  Twins reared apart studies got a bad rap as a result of Cyril Burt’s fraudulent data purporting to show the heritability of intelligence.  Comparisons of identical and fraternal twins run up against the fact that having an identical twin is a very different experience from haing a fraternal twin.

I see two potential problems with this study.  First, we can’t rule out differences in interaction between identical twins and fraternal twins as a possible explanation.

The second problem–all genes are expressed at a cellular level in the form of different proteins.  Survey non-response, in contrast, is a specific and high order (far removed from cellular activity) that, really, is unlikely to be governed by a a few small chemical differences.  I believe that anyone making a claim about the heritability of any behavior ought to suggest a plausible cellular mechanism.  It’s also desirable to have some plausible selective pressure that would favor such a genetic predisposition.  Given that survey taking is a relatively recent (in human history) activity, I’m not sure you can make a case for any selective advantage in refusing to participate in surveys.

Maybe–and it’s a big maybe–there’s a selective advantage in some cluster of behaviors–such as cooperation–that just happens to manifest itself in propensity to take surveys.  That might be plausible.  Perhaps the authors offer that explanation in the full paper.  We’ll have to see.

Copyright 2010 by David G. Bakken.  All rights reserved.

In the October 4, 2009 edition of The NY Times “Sunday Business” section (“It’s Brand New, but Make It Sound Familiar“), Mary Tripsas, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, writes about the challenge of finding the right consumer reference points for innovations.  In a nutshell, consumers have a hard time figuring out innovation unless they can compare it to something that is more familiar.  One example offered in the column  comes from Arthur Markham, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin:  the less than blockbuster introduction of the Segway motorized personal transport device.  In a similar vein, Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational) argues that comparison is a fundamental process in consumer decision making.

Estimating demand for really new innovations may just be the most difficult endeavor in market research.  A decade ago Robert Veryzer, Jr. identified six factors that make it difficult for consumers to react to innovation (“Key Factors Affecting Customer Evaluation of Discontinuous New Products,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, 1998, 15, 136-150) .  The first factor listed is “lack of familiarity with the product, with the way in which the product is used, or with the underlying technology.”  And one way consumers try to understand a discontinuous product is by comparison with things they already know about.

By and large, I think marketers and market researchers underestimate the fundamental role of comparison and contrast in the way we make judgments about products.  As Professor Tripsas makes clear, humans (consumers included) rely on categorization to understand the world.  Looking at a new, discontinuous product, we’re likely to ask, is it this or that? (more…)

buy-ology:  Truth and Lies About Why We Buy by Martin Lindstrom, Doubleday, 2008

The author bio on the inside of the jacket describes Martin Lindstrom as “one of the world’s most respected marketing gurus” and claims that he has a “global audience of over a million people.”   Even so, until this book was published I’d never heard of Martin Lindstrom in my many years as a marketing consultant.  More than anything, my ignorance points to the fragmented nature of the marketing world, where it’s entirely possible for an individual to be known to a relatively small group of clients until he or she publishes a book that makes the New York Times best-seller list.

Lindstrom’s book is, sort of, about the application of cognitive neuroscience to marketing and, more specifically, to branding. Technological advances have given neuroscientists new tools for localizing and measuring the level of activity in different areas of the brain, and these tools are being applied to marketing and other areas of economic behavior.  The technology that is getting the most attention is functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.  In the typical diagnostic MRI, a series of images are captured  that reflect “snapshots” of an area that, taken together, paint a detailed internal picture of some part of the body.  fMRI improves upon this (at least from the neuroscientist’s perspective) by creating a sequence of images over time. Because the fMRI can detect changes in blood flow to different parts of the brain, this effectively allows a researcher to map the areas of the brain that are “engaged” in different cognitive tasks.  Like a patient undergoing a diagnostic MRI, a subject in an experiment that employs fMRI must lie inside the MRI machine.  Any external stimulus (such as an advertisement or task instructions) must either be auditory or presented to the subject by reflecting it onto a small mirror above the subject’s face.  If you’ve ever experienced an MRI, you know that there is loud and frequent banging during the test.  Most fMRI studies are conducted on small samples of consumers (fewer than thirty, in many cases).

The main alternative technology for “brain imaging” is electro-encephalography (EEG).  Much like an electrocardiogram that measures electrical activity in the heart, EEG measures electrical activity in the brain. Over the years, technological refinements have made EEG measurements more precise, leading to an ability to isolate the activity in different regions of the brain.  Whereas the increase in blood flow detected by fMRI has a small delay (e.g. one to three seconds), the responses detected by EEG are instantaneous.  EEG is therefore very good at detecting what we are paying attention to.  And, because the sensors for EEG can be embedded in something like a baseball cap, it’s possible to monitor brain activity while subjects are, for example, watching television programs in a group.  The form of EEG monitoring used in most neuromarketing studies, steady state topography (SST), is also less expensive than fMRI.  A new EEG technology, magneto-encephalography (MEG), is, like fMRI, not portable and at this early stage, relatively expensive.

Most “neuromarketing” brain imaging research relies on correlating brain activity that occurs in response to some relevant stimulus (which could be viewing a television program, watching an advertisement, or making a choice from a simulated shelf, as examples) with what we know about localization of function in the brain.  If different stimuli or cognitive tasks lead to activity in different regions of the brain we can make inferences based on what we know about the functions performed by those areas of the brain.

Our understanding of localization of brain function is based on anatomy, on behavioral changes or impairments that result from injury or damage to some part of the brain, on studies with direct measurement of neural activity (by inserting electrodes into individual neurons), and on brain imaging studies.  Some functions are clearly localized in specific parts of the brain, particularly sensory and motor functions.  For example, the areas of the brain that process visual and auditory stimuli are distinct and, except in rare cases of synesthesia, there is a one-to-one correspondence between sensory input and the area of the brain that is activated.  When it comes to processing complex information, the picture is not so clear cut.  We may know which areas are involved in, say, emotion, but we cannot precisely determine the form of that involvement.  Thus, it’s one thing to observe that areas of the brain believed to involve emotion and reward “light up” when we are exposed to an advertisement, and quite another to conclude that a brand message must activate particular areas of the brain in order to create loyalty to the brand.

According to Mr. Lindstrom, the basis for this book is a research study involving about 2,000 individuals that he conducted over a three-year period with the help of Richard Silberstein of the Brain Sciences Institute at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, and Gemma Calvert, Managing Director of Neurosense, a UK consultancy specializing in the application of neuroscience to consumer marketing.  About 90% of the subjects participated in studies employing SST/EEG to measure brain activity.  The remainder took part in fMRI measurements.  The $7 million (US) or so that Mr. Lindstrom claims the research cost was provided by a few client companies.  Mr. Lindstrom reminds us repeatedly (4 times in the first 11 pages of the book) that this is the “most extensive study of its kind ever conducted” (and “twenty-five times larger than any marketing study ever conducted”).

Unfortunately, the book fails to deliver the goods promised in the subtitle, “Truth and Lies About Why We Buy.”  It may be that Mr. Lindstrom kept all the good stuff for the clients who kicked in to fund his study.  Instead of an informative report on a comprehensive program of research, we get only the sketchiest details of the neuroscience experiments (and when we do, the results are usually “shocking”).  Mr. Lindstrom has received some attention for his finding that warning labels on cigarette packs and advertisements may actually trigger a craving for the product.  He tries to extend this finding to broader areas of marketing, but I’m not sure that physically addictive products are the best neuroscience model for other consumer goods.  His general technique is to toss out a proposition about some underlying, presumably unconscious process that determines our marketplace choices, provide a number of anecdotes as examples of this proposition and, finally–in some but not all cases–share some finding or other from his study that proves what he’s telling us.

In a paper presented at the ESOMAR Congress 2006 (title “Cognitive Neuroscience, Marketing and Research:  Separating Fact from Fiction”), Jane Raymond, a neuroscientist at Bangor University in Wales, and Graham Page of Millward Brown note that “a great many papers have been written and presented on cognitive neuroscience in recent years–some by neuroscientists, some by enthusiastic amateurs, some by start-ups with a product to sell.”  By the way, this paper is an excellent introduction to cognitive neuroscience and it’s potential relevance for marketers.  I’m not sure if it’s available anywhere except in the conference proceedings.

Mr. Lindstrom’s enthusiasm for his topic is evident throughout the book and despite the fact that he comes up short with respect to practical information or to my standards for research-based books, it’s still a fun read.  One thing that annoys–almost all of the notes are presented in the form of URL’s rather than bibliographic citations, and almost all of them are from secondary sources rather than the original research reports or articles.

So, by all means read this book if you like, but don’t take it as the final word on the way our brains govern our marketplace choices.

Copyright 2009 by David G. Bakken.  All rights reservcd.