The force behind your thoughts

The force behind your thoughts

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Posted: September 11, 2012
Category: Neuro
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“You may think you decided to read this story – but in fact, your brain made the decision long before you knew about it” is the intro sentence of an article published by Wired in 2008 that immediately caught my eye. The theory according to which the conscious thinking process is just like an iceberg, where the under-water body,  the subconscious, is the largest and strongest, has been haunting us since Freud’s first theories and is making us feel like strangers in our own heads. How many times, during conversations, did you happen to accidentally say something you did not want to, to have a Freudian slip, a slip up of which you wanted to keep hidden or stumble upon a piece of information that you were not aware of? It would appear that this subconscious thinking process influences us more than its first theoreticians imagined and that behavioral economy is the one that brings these new elements of human psychology into the financial equation.“You may think you decided to read this story – but in fact, your brain made the decision long before you knew about it” is the intro sentence of an article published by Wired in 2008 that immediately caught my eye. The theory according to which the conscious thinking process is just like an iceberg, where the under-water body,  the subconscious, is the largest and strongest, has been haunting us since Freud’s first theories and is making us feel like strangers in our own heads. How many times, during conversations, did you happen to accidentally say something you did not want to, to have a Freudian slip, a slip up of which you wanted to keep hidden or stumble upon a piece of information that you were not aware of? It would appear that this subconscious thinking process influences us more than its first theoreticians imagined and that behavioral economy is the one that brings these new elements of human psychology into the financial equation.

The article from Wired comments on a study published in Nature Neuroscience where brain scanners were used to predict decisions (that of pushing a button or raising a hand) just a few seconds before the subjects were aware of their actions. "Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done," stated at the time one of the co-authors of the study, John-Dylan Haynes, specialist in neuroscience with the Max Planck Institute.

With the help of fMRI technology, one noticed an increase of the neuronal activity at the frontopolar cortex, a region of the brain associated with planning, 7 seconds before the subjects pushed the button. Immediately afterwards, the neural activity increased in the parietal cortex, a region associated with sensory integration. All these patterns highlight that, although every subject is under the impression that he/she decides deliberately to push or not the button or to raise their hands, in reality the decision has been already taken a couple of seconds before the moment they became aware of it.

Subconscious decision making Most decisions we face every day are taken at the subconscious level before we rationalize them and what we call “deliberation” or "rational process" is in fact a type of post-rationalization, an intellectual alibi that we build to help us integrate in the conscious thinking these decisions already taken at the subconscious level. The decision to order a Coke to top up a menu at McDonalds’ was taken before you were asked if you want a drink with the order, but if someone inquires, you will say you were thirsty and it was cheaper if you got the whole menu. All these arguments that you bring to yourself and to those around you, to support the decision, are part of the post-rationalization process.

More recent studies confirm that the subconscious brain activity precedes and determines taking decisions at the conscious level, a discovery which is at the basis of many marketing best-sellers such as Predictability Irrational by Dan Ariely, The Buying Brain by A. K. Pradeep or Buyology: The Truth and Lies about Why We Buy by Martin Lindstrom. All these support the theory according to which the decision making process is influenced by countless factors that we are not aware of although, until recently, people considered it to be a rational process (homo economicus).

Shopping and other compulsive behaviors The shopping culture is the most eloquent example of compulsive actions, fed by the subconscious – women tend to shop more than they need, not just under the influence of pop culture or in order to activate the center of pleasure so that they compensate for various problems in their lives, but also because of the gathering behavior of selecting and collecting, imprinted in their neuronal structure throughout the two million years in which they were hunters – gatherers. Not to mention the premenstrual depression in which hormonal disorders demand their share of compensational shopping, or the nesting period for developing maternal instincts, which degenerates, in the modern age, in compulsive actions.

Buyology is one of the books of great influence in neuromarketing and it is based on a fMRI study on 2000 volunteers, trying to find a reasonable answer for the famous problem of John Wanamaker, the father of modern marketing: “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half". In an article published by Lindstrom on the Fastcompany website, he suggests that the inner voice making all the decisions is dominated by less articulated cognitive forces. The example used by Lindstrom is knocking on wood every time we want fate to protect us from a disaster. In his most recent book, Brainwashed, Lindstrom claims that there is a 70% chance that you do this too. If someone proved to you that this action is completely inefficient, the probability is that you will continue to do it because logic does not have much to do with this type of decision; this conclusion quite revolutionized the marketing approach.

The conclusion that many jumped to, after these studies were published, was that we are finally getting closer to the Buy Button in our heads. Fortunately, we are far from this type of performance because the human mind is far too complex to be read with the help of neural imagery. The information that is obtained with the aid of neuromarketing brings added value to research and increases the marketing campaigns’ efficiency by identifying the areas in the brain involved in deciphering the message, but we are still far from reading, or even worse, inoculating thoughts in the consumers’ minds.

The article from Wired comments on a study published in Nature Neuroscience where brain scanners were used to predict decisions (that of pushing a button or raising a hand) just a few seconds before the subjects were aware of their actions. "Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done," stated at the time one of the co-authors of the study, John-Dylan Haynes, specialist in neuroscience with the Max Planck Institute.

With the help of fMRI technology, one noticed an increase of the neuronal activity at the frontopolar cortex, a region of the brain associated with planning, 7 seconds before the subjects pushed the button. Immediately afterwards, the neural activity increased in the parietal cortex, a region associated with sensory integration. All these patterns highlight that, although every subject is under the impression that he/she decides deliberately to push or not the button or to raise their hands, in reality the decision has been already taken a couple of seconds before the moment they became aware of it.

Subconscious decision making Most decisions we face every day are taken at the subconscious level before we rationalize them and what we call “deliberation” or "rational process" is in fact a type of post-rationalization, an intellectual alibi that we build to help us integrate in the conscious thinking these decisions already taken at the subconscious level. The decision to order a Coke to top up a menu at McDonalds’ was taken before you were asked if you want a drink with the order, but if someone inquires, you will say you were thirsty and it was cheaper if you got the whole menu. All these arguments that you bring to yourself and to those around you, to support the decision, are part of the post-rationalization process.

More recent studies confirm that the subconscious brain activity precedes and determines taking decisions at the conscious level, a discovery which is at the basis of many marketing best-sellers such as Predictability Irrational by Dan Ariely, The Buying Brain by A. K. Pradeep or Buyology: The Truth and Lies about Why We Buy by Martin Lindstrom. All these support the theory according to which the decision making process is influenced by countless factors that we are not aware of although, until recently, people considered it to be a rational process (homo economicus).

Shopping and other compulsive behaviors The shopping culture is the most eloquent example of compulsive actions, fed by the subconscious – women tend to shop more than they need, not just under the influence of pop culture or in order to activate the center of pleasure so that they compensate for various problems in their lives, but also because of the gathering behavior of selecting and collecting, imprinted in their neuronal structure throughout the two million years in which they were hunters – gatherers. Not to mention the premenstrual depression in which hormonal disorders demand their share of compensational shopping, or the nesting period for developing maternal instincts, which degenerates, in the modern age, in compulsive actions.

Buyology is one of the books of great influence in neuromarketing and it is based on a fMRI study on 2000 volunteers, trying to find a reasonable answer for the famous problem of John Wanamaker, the father of modern marketing: “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half". In an article published by Lindstrom on the Fastcompany website, he suggests that the inner voice making all the decisions is dominated by less articulated cognitive forces. The example used by Lindstrom is knocking on wood every time we want fate to protect us from a disaster. In his most recent book, Brainwashed, Lindstrom claims that there is a 70% chance that you do this too. If someone proved to you that this action is completely inefficient, the probability is that you will continue to do it because logic does not have much to do with this type of decision; this conclusion quite revolutionized the marketing approach.

The conclusion that many jumped to, after these studies were published, was that we are finally getting closer to the Buy Button in our heads. Fortunately, we are far from this type of performance because the human mind is far too complex to be read with the help of neural imagery. The information that is obtained with the aid of neuromarketing brings added value to research and increases the marketing campaigns’ efficiency by identifying the areas in the brain involved in deciphering the message, but we are still far from reading, or even worse, inoculating thoughts in the consumers’ minds.

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