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What’s new with neuroscience?

Recently, there has been a huge increase in interest for the application and integration of neuroscience theories into behavioural research. ‘Consumer neuroscience’ as a newly developed research discipline can easily work alongside more traditional methodologies and significantly benefit research, by combining neuroscience techniques with current methodologies for consumer and Shopper behaviour research.

So what does neuroscience add to market research and importantly, can these techniques offer insights that really add value?

Beyond qualitative research, neuroscience has the ability to delve deeper to evaluate the process of how consumers think and feel, and eventually behave. The depth at which techniques such as EEG and fMRI can gain quantitative insights is arguably greater than through standard qualitative techniques. The ability to measure real time brain activity at the moment a consumer/Shopper is interacting with a stimulus, allows research to understand the process of this interaction – Whether or not, and to what degree, elements of the stimulus are impacting.

Since neuroscience doesn’t rely on verbal interaction, explicit behaviour is not required to uncover underlying emotional, sensory and experiential reactions with stimulus. It is clear that one of the main advantages that neuroscience has over traditional methodologies is to uncover insight in more depth by moving past explicit response, meaning that research can uncover insights that would either be particularly difficult to uncover verbally or would be hard to derive meaning from.

How often do respondents come back with an answer where they know what they want to say but find it difficult to portray their exact meaning? It would be incredibly inaccurate to say neuroscience will be able to ‘read their mind’ or produce a clear answer but if you are able to uncover that the respondent connected with certain aspects of a piece of stimulus over others, wouldn’t this help the research to start to piece together the puzzle that is consumer behaviour?

So how and which neuroscience techniques have been utilised in MR so far?

One main area where neuroscience has been utilised is in the study of consumer decision making, achieved partly through the use of fMRI. This contribution has uncovered the important influence that emotion has on the decision making process, revealing that consumers are not always completely rational when making these decisions.

Approximately 90 companies worldwide claim to work with neuroscience methodologies however a large percentage will only apply insights found from publications, rather than produce research. fMRI is a foundation of traditional neuroscience research but only about 10% apply this technique, highlighting the need for real experiential research when applying neuroscience to the field of consumer behaviour.

One behavioural test which could be combined with fMRI would be timed emotional response. Since timed emotional response test is designed to uncover implicit vs explicit responses to stimuli, fMRI can be used to measure the extent to which a respondent connects, emotionally or semantically, with the stimulus and therefore gauge the extent to which the response has been explicit or implicit. This application would allow the quantifying of the response by respondents in a way which wouldn’t be possible using the behavioural test alone.

Within consumer neuroscience EEG is a commonly utilised technique, however not in a traditional format. Since this technique requires strict protocols within a lab, this wouldn’t allow consumers to behave as they would in the ‘real world’. Research needs to be conducted in surroundings where consumers would interact with a stimulus in everyday life. Tight protocols still need to be upheld within the methodology to ensure that the insights discovered from the research can still be applied, meaning a balance between ecological and methodological validity needs to be met.

One way this has been overcome is by combining EEG and eye-tracking equipment. Eye-tracking allows researchers to highlight areas of a ‘scene’ attracting most visual attention by respondents. Results from eye-tracking can then be paired with brain activity information for interactions with specific products or advertising or POS. Conclusions from this research could then be based on these ’time sensitive’ findings and produce more definitive conclusions than either of these techniques in isolation. This methodology would require equipment which is portable, light weight and unobtrusive, allowing respondents to naturally browse a fixture or product.

In conclusion, since consumer neuroscience is still a relatively new discipline it needs to stay in touch with the latest principles and hypotheses of cognitive neuroscience. This would ensure that these methodologies can then continue to deliver rich and highly relevant data which has potential for strategic and creative outputs. Despite the incredible depths that neuroscience can go to deliver fascinating insights in processes underlying consumer behaviour, the results from this type of work has to be actionable.

However while limitations still exist in all neuroscience techniques, the levels of interpretation from the data produced will still be limited, depending on how methodological paradigms are constructed. To produce the most effective and richest results it has often been preferred in the past to combine techniques which complement each other, often removing a limitation which would exist for a technique in isolation. Since protocols for neuroscience methodologies are very strict to ensure validity, expert advice is always required while running a consumer neuroscience study.

Until these methodologies become widely available and more universally understood, neuroscience may struggle to establish itself as a commercially acceptable methodology.

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