An interview with Professor Geraint Rees


Chairmans Blog Rees Banner

 

Dr David Lewis –David Lewis - Mindlab International Chairman The Chairman’s Blog

 

An Interview with Professor Geraint Rees

As professionals we should constantly be learning about, and frequently learning from, the knowledge and experience of others in the field. For the next few of my blogs I will be presenting edited interviews with some of the leading players in the field of neuroscience, marketing, and retailing. In the first of these Professor Geraint Rees, Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, discusses the two main technologies used by neuromarketing companies – EEG and fMRI. How, in his opinion, had these advanced over the last decade?  



Professor Geraint Rees: “EEG is a stable, mature technology that has been around – [he pauses to think] – well since a very long time. There have not been many technical developments within EEG in the last 10 years. I would have thought that the main developments have been in the way data can be analysed and, in particular, putting the data into frameworks where it can be combined with data from other imaging techniques – such as functional MRI. The software packages now used to analyse functional imaging data, like SPM, or Statistical Parametric Mapping can also be used now to analyse EEG or MEG (1) data. That facilitates data fusion, that is, looking at how a mental process in the human brain operates, combining data from two different techniques. That was quite fashionable, five years ago. With functional MRI, in the last decade, I think it’s a technology that’s rapidly matured. Twenty years ago, it was brand new –it was the new-new thing and it was super hot. And that meant a lot of exploratory studies got done, a lot of things got found out very rapidly. At the same time, there was a lot more heterogeneity in how people analysed their data, and how people reached the conclusions they were going to reach. Perhaps the second phase of that has been, as with any technology, not only has the hardware matured, but also the way in which the data analysed has converged internationally into widely agreed standards, that are – not universally – but near-universally applied. So the field feels a lot more mature in terms of that respect. The hardware has continued to evolve, but I would describe it as incremental, rather than revolutionary. The revolution was inventing B.O.L.D (2) contrast functional MRI in the first place. Since then, there have been repeated advances in terms of the field strength of magnets at which data can be acquired and that, in turn, either increases your sensitivity to detect more subtle effects in the brain, or you keep the same sensitivity, but can get higher spatial resolution. So you can see more bits of the brain and in more detail.



That’s probably the biggest drive, together also with something called parallel imaging, where you can acquire more data, faster, that again allows the same improvement, so the end user is seeing data that are either more sensitive to small changes in the brain, or are more spatially fine-grained, compared to previously. Those have been the main technological developments.

Professor Rees



In EEG, the intrinsic problem is you can never fully determine the pattern of sources in the brain that produce a pattern of EEG waves. For a mathematical reason that is unfixable. This problem is not solvable, or not uniquely solvable. That doesn’t mean that one can’t guess at what pattern of sources, or patterns of activity in the brain made the particular pattern of activity at the scalp that you observe. It just means it’s not uniquely determined, which means you can’t ever be precisely certain. A second, intrinsic, barrier to the nature of the EEG signal is that it’s relatively insensitive to deep brain structures. So the nuclei that live in the middle of our brains that, for example, are affected in Parkinson’s (disease) are not easily accessible to any technique that records the scalp EEG – [which is] much more sensitive to stuff on the surface of the brain. And those are intrinsic and are probably not going to be overcome anytime soon. With functional MRI, the mostly widely used form of functional MRI, B.O.L.D. or Blood-Oxygen Level Dependant, is contingent on the level of deoxyhaemoglobin in the blood. The intrinsic limitation there, whatever the special scale at which blood flow is regulated, is the ultimate spatial resolution on functional MRI, because you are not going to get below that – or you’re going to get below that with difficulty, and inferences, and assumptions. We’ve known for a long time, since experiments in the 19th century, that blood flow changes in the brain are very closely localised to where neural activity changes, to within a millimetre or two. Now a millimetre or two is great – right? I mean, absolutely fantastic for the kind of science I do. But on the other hand, to some people, a millimetre or two is hundreds of thousands of nerve cells, and so that’s a huge distance. It reflects the fact that the brain has these multiple levels of organisation at different spatial scales.



For a technique at one spatial scale to talk, or inform another spatial scale is not always possible, or is more challenging if there are intrinsic limits like this… there have been repeated attempts to get round that; some people have tried to devise MR sequences that, for example, are sensitive to electrical currents. But these generally have not entered wide usage, and are generally speaking, highly technical and not as powerful. Why B.O.L.D contrast fMRI has become the de facto standard is not because it’s the best signal, but it’s because it’s the signal that’s easiest to produce and is jolly reliable. As these things go. So there’s an intrinsic limit of course that many people appreciate, because it’s a blood flow response, which is also temporal. So the timing of the blood flow response lags neural activity by several seconds. But…we don’t know for sure, because people haven’t done a kind of mapping experiment to map out that latency across the whole brain. The reason they haven’t done that is because you’d need to be able to precisely activate every single portion of the brain and you don’t know precisely what to do to do that, to actually make the measurements in the first place. There’s no particular reason to expect wild differences because, of course, given that brains have grown, like the rest of us, from very small numbers of cells, in the embryo. That said, there are some regions of the brain, like, say the cerebellum, where the architecture of the nerve cells is quite different. So you might expect or anticipate or hypothesise that the blood flow response is different. Usually that isn’t a problem for experimenting, because you’re comparing an experimental manipulation in that brain region – you’re not normally comparing what’s happening in one brain region, to another.



You’re looking at what’s happening in a brain region, under two different circumstances. So there are ways round that particular problem – it’s recognised in the field, basically. Within marketing, generally, with honourable exceptions, there’s often a surprising lack of knowledge about whether it works. So for example, I went to a conference where one company gave a very interesting presentation about how difficult they found it, working out whether advertising made any difference to sales. They went to the trouble of essentially randomising half the customers in one town, to receive adverts for one store, or not. Then working with that store to actually determine whether that made a difference in sales. So a really good experiment – well controlled. The challenge they had, was they did observe an effect, a positive effect, but it was so small, and the variability in what people spent at this store, because it was a general – I presume – department store, was so big, that the effect size they were measuring, even with tens of thousands of customers, they found it very difficult to actually say this is definitively a statistically significant difference in marketing. But that said…that difference, multiplied by the number of consumers, was a big difference to their bottom line. So very relevant. That’s not Neuro marketing – they were just doing classic marketing. But I had a lot of sympathy for the challenge they faced in determining whether a large-scale intervention has a very small effect on a very heterogeneous population. It’s not easy. Of course, recording EEG in the wild is always going to be worse than recording EEG in controlled laboratory conditions. Not so much because of the uncontrolled nature of the environment, but because of the electrical interference of everything around us that is electrical…as long as the signal is reflecting the EEG signals, fine. It’s then just a pragmatic issue of, is the signal enough to provide something useful that can correlate, or provide insight, into some behaviour? If it is, it doesn’t matter that it’s not the best in the world.



I was reading a Psych-science paper showing that fMRI responses in a focus group predicted the effectiveness of a marketing campaign. I thought that was a good paper – and it was really interesting. Because that was conceptually doing a really interesting thing, which was saying you can do a high quality laboratory based fMRI study, and a focus group, and it generalises to a large-scale phone survey. Again, from the conceptual issues, that is interesting because that says you don’t have to collect lots of data, badly, from lots of people, and draw a conclusion from noisy data. You can actually do this, but under these kind of circumstances. So if you could understand, for example, the circumstances under which that generalisation works, then that becomes a very useful tool. In the same way that presumably focus groups are useful tools in marketing generally, because the focus group can be generalised to the population.” End





[1] Magnetoencephalography (MEG) a technique for mapping brain activity by recording the magnetic fields produced by naturally occurring electrical currents.

[2] BOLD – Blood Oxygen Level Dependent. A technique for mapping brain activity by measuring changes in blood flow to different regions. The full version of this interview, conducted by Mindlab’s Tom Dixon, can be found at www.the-brainsell.com 


Subscribe



Share




Neuromarketing Myths (No. 3) – It’s too inaccessible and expensive

neuromarketing myths

Old School MythsHere’s the third post in the Neuromarketing Myths series.  Here we will try and remove some of the mystery surrounding our profession, and address the most common misconceptions we encounter on a day-to-day basis.

I could argue that if the research is really good then there’s going to be an excellent ROI. Fair point, but if you spend all of your research budget on new fangled neuromarketing and get no insight then you’ll soon be looking for a new job. PeoplBrain With Arms, Legs And Magnet On Hands, Catch Many Euro Bankne are loss averse (I know you knew that already). Insight specialists are no different. The status quo bias reminds us that change can seem as a loss so shifting over to new approaches is difficult enough but shifting to expensive new approaches is too big a step to take.

One of the reasons that fMRI and EEG based research isn’t as popular as the press actually suggests is that it’s expensive to do right. This is especially so if the testing is to be done on more than 100 people. The anchoring effect of neuromarketing prices from 10 years ago lingers but the truth is that you can now get comprehensive quantitative insight into emotions, attitudes and perceptions for the cost of many traditional market research approaches.


Subscribe



Share




Neuromarketing Myths (No. 2) – It’s all about brain scans

neuromarketing myths

 

Old School Myths

Here’s the second installment to our Neuromarketing Myths series. Neuromarketing techniques are increasingly being used by companies in order to test their brand perceptions, new concepts, products, packaging, communications and much more. Its use is so widespread that it is surprising how much misunderstanding there still is around neuromarketing. Here we will try and remove some of the mystery surrounding our profession, and address the most common misconceptions we encounter on a day-to-day basis.

 

It’s all about brain scansModern Examination In The Hospital

It is true that neuromarketing started out with a strong focus on technologies such as fMRI (brain scans) and EEG (measuring electrical brain activity). Modern neuromarketing now however is much more about scalable psychological and cognitive tests that can be carried out online. This is not just because they are cheaper,  faster to turn around and allow us to test many more participants, but also because they tend to provide clear and comparable data that can directly answer many market research questions. Automated facial encoding using webcam and implicit testing (refered to as IAT or IRT) is now becoming mainstream.

 

Neurobollocks

Many people who don’t have a background in psychology and neuroscience seem to believe that brain imaging techniques such as fMRI will give them better answers. Research has shown that people are more likely to be convinced by statements if these are presented next to a brain image and they seem to be similarly seduced by the idea of brain scanning in market research. But results from these studies are often much less clear than they may appear.

Neuromarketing has had some bad press, quite rightly at times. One particular neuromarketing study was lambasted after a New York Times OP-Ed piece compared iPhone addiction to cocaine use and falling in love because the insula’ lit up. The problem is that the insula lights up for loads of things. The same brain area may also be involved in working memory, physical pain, disgust, anger, visual perception, motor sequencing, and memory retrieval.

Insight professionals want to better understand the mechanisms of decision making and neuromarketing can and does help. It’s just a shame that some people get it so very very wrong and make the industry look stupid.


Subscribe



Share




Neuromarketing Myths (No. 1) – We can brainwash you!

neuromarketing myths

Old School Myths  Neuromarketing techniques are increasingly being used by companies in order to test their brand perceptions, new concepts, products, packaging, communications and much more. Its use is so widespread that it is surprising how much misunderstanding there still is around neuromarketing. Here we will try and remove some of the mystery surrounding our profession, and address the most common misconceptions we encounter on a day-to-day basis.

 

We can read minds (and brainwash you)

One of the most common things we hear when new clients first get in touch with us (or even when we just talk to friends about our jobs) is that they feel there is something ‘spooky’ or ‘scary’ about what we do. People either seem to think that we try and ‘read their mind’ to uncover aspects of themselves that they weren’t even aware of, or brainwash them into buying the latest product, or both.

Let’s be clear here: WhileMind Control it’s flattering that you put this much faith into our abilities as psychologists, neuroscientists, market researchers and data analysts, we’re really not that great. What seems to create this fear in people is neither currently possible nor desirable. Fundamentally, we try to answer the same questions as traditional market research, we just believe we have a better approach to it. Instead of just asking people for their opinion, we measure things such as their gut feelings about a product, how their opinion about a brand has been (very subtly) changed by communications, and whether they pay attention to an advert or not.

None of this has anything to do with brainwashing (not any more than advertising always has) or subliminal messaging. We are simply capturing people’s opinions and attitudes in a more effective way than traditional market research alone does.

Every year $billions are spent on ineffective market research. The aim of neuromarketing is to make market research spend more effective.

 Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.


Subscribe



Share




Be Strategic – Really?

strategic

Last week I was invited by Digital Annexe and ISBA to talk at ISBA’s Insight and networking event entitled ‘The Next 5 Years in Digital’.

It was great to see such a strong presence from Asda, Morrison’s and Nestle.

Sean Singleton from DA talked about the 7 habits of digital marketers (borrowed from Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective people).

The habit that stood out for me was ‘Be Strategic’. This seems blindingly obvious but most people don’t think long 7 Habitsterm. Sean argues that marketers are too focussed on driving more traffic to their websites but then fail to engage customers with the correct approaches to increase site conversion.

I think that this short term thinking is a ubiquitous problem in business and goes some way to explain why traditional market research dominates the market place and why the science of decision-making has not had more of an impact on marketing. This is despite compelling evidence from countless psychologists and neuroscientists that clearly demonstrates that the majority of our decision making processes occur below our conscious radar.

To translate the findings of decision sciences into marketing practices takes time. The fact that the average tenure of Chief Marketing Officers is just 45 months and the continual demand for short term results means that people are more worried about keeping their jobs than fixing the long term problems with a bloated over-emphasis of explicit self-report in market research.

I regularly speak to insight professionals who have read Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman or Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. These people even have a passion for decision sciences and understand that there is a key role in non-conscious processing in decision making but constantly come up against barriers when they discuss ideas of change with colleagues. Marketers need to spend time understanding how people make decisions. This is relevant to all categories but isn’t being done on anything like the scale that it should.

As humans we make mistakes and behave in irrational ways, which is reflected in cognitive biases. The reticence of researchers to change their approaches is, in some way, due to confirmation bias. When we make decisions, such as investing hundreds of thousands of pounds on traditional market research, our brains seek out evidence to make us think that we made the right decision. We are essentially blind to evidence that says the decision was wrong. We like it when a decision feels good.

Sean also states that as a key habit, we should create a culture of experimentation. Too true. New approaches need to be experimented with and validated – a process that takes time. Progressive marketers would be well advised to try out behaviourally based approaches that interrogate our non-conscious minds without post rationalisation. This can easily and cost effectively be done on small projects to introduce new thinking.

‘Be strategic’ may be one of the most overused phrases in business. It may well also be one of the most misunderstood.

Duncan Smith


Subscribe



Share




Why the subconscious matters

mindlab-blog-banner-dynamic-advertising

If you want to truly understand consumer behaviour, you need to not only look at people’s explicit responses (what they say they like), but to also take subconscious emotions and judgements into account. But why is it the case that subconscious processes influence our decisions? Surely we should make better judgements if we consciously thought about our decisions more and not let our gut feelings take over. In this blog post, I will look into how we use subconscious ‘thinking’ to make decisions and why this is actually a good strategy.

Coke cans and cars

It is often thought that we base our decisions primarily on conscious thinking when there is a lot at stake, for example when we buy expensive goods, choose a place to live or buy a car. In contrast, when shopping for cheaper or less important products, subconscious thought is often the main driver of our decisions (we will usually pick an item within seconds out of a range of competitors, without consciously weighing up all of their pros and cons, but rather trusting our intuition). This theory certainly makes sense when you think about subconscious thinking as fast and relatively easy, and conscious thought as a slow, more effortful process that can be used to override the subconscious and evaluate different aspects more carefully. But is there more to subconscious decision-making than is immediately obvious? If you are making an important decision (e.g. buying a house), your friends and family will encourage you to spend a good amount of time considering different options, sleep on the decision, write down advantages and disadvantages and discuss them with others. But research has shown that only trusting your conscious thoughts might not always be the best approach.

Spontaneity and happiness

We think that thinking hard and justifying decisions will lead to better outcomes, but this is not always the case. An experiment was conducted to test whether people would be happier with spontaneous decisions or ones they justified (Wilson et al., 1990). For this, participants were given the choice between several posters which they were allowed to keep after the experiment. Half of the participants had to just pick a poster and take it home, while the other half were asked to write down reasons for why they picked the poster. Both were told that the experimenter would not know which poster they picked, so that they would not feel judged for their decisions. Not only did the spontaneous group pick different posters than the deliberation group (posters that were ‘just pretty’ instead of ones with motivating slogans, etc.), when asked a few months later about their decisions, they were also much happier with the choice they made. But one might argue that picking a poster is not a particularly important decision, and that of course we can trust our subconscious to make this choice. However, the following example will show that we should use our gut feelings when making more important decisions as well.

Is our subconscious better at making important decisions?

In order to test whether we make better judgements using conscious or sub-conscious decision-making processes, a series of studies was carried out at the University of Amsterdam, looking at choosing apartments or potential roommates (Dijksterhuis, 2004). For this, participants were shown 12 pieces of information about each possible apartment (e.g. size, location) or roommate (e.g. tidy, fun). The way the information was presented ensured that there was always a hypothetical ‘best choice’ (one apartment was better than the others). After showing participants the information, they were either asked to pick their favourite straight away (control condition), were given 3 minutes to think about their decision and then choose (conscious thought) or were distracted with a difficult task for 3 minutes and then asked to decide (this discouraged conscious thought and was therefore seen as the subconscious decision). When looking at the choices they made, it turned out that the subconscious group made the best decisions (subjectively, as well as when individual importance of factors was taken into account – e.g. when someone said that location was more important than size, etc.).

How is this possible?

When thinking of conscious and subconscious thought as simply slow vs. fast or effortful vs. effortless, we miss one important aspect of these different ways of ‘thinking’: The amount of information that can be processed. Consciousness can only process a relatively small amount of information at once, while the processing capacity of the subconscious is much larger. Therefore, when we have to make a judgement and only take a few facts into account, conscious thought may lead to better results than the subconscious, while the subconscious appears to be better at forming overall impressions. When there are lots of factors to consider, conscious deliberation runs the risk of taking not all of the information into account, but basing the decision on just a few of the facts. Therefore, even when making complex, important decisions, it can often be better to listen to your gut feelings. And one of the pieces of advice your friends and family gave you earlier is actually based on this idea: Sleep on your decision. Often, being distracted for a while can help coming to a conclusion, and artists, authors and anyone else having to use their creativity will know that incubation (stepping away from a problem) can help tremendously in coming up with good solutions.

Overall, it can be said that not only simple, unimportant decisions are best made using the subconscious, but that even difficult and important decisions such as choosing a house are influenced greatly by our subconscious, because it provides a more global impression. This is why testing subconscious, implicit and automatic impressions is not only important when trying to predict the success of inexpensive items such as fast-moving consumer goods, but will also give a great deal of insight for more expensive goods (and related brands, advertising strategies and design).

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.


Subscribe



Share