Monday, July 6, 2009

Critiquing Brain Scans and the Assumption That Purchasing is a Matter of Status and Self-Definition

John Tierney writes an article in his blog that is entitled, “Could it be that humans are not quite as gullible as advertised?”
He takes social psychologists to task when he says, “For a couple of decades now, social psychologists and behavioral economists have been amusing themselves manipulating consumers into doing odd things. They’ve delighted in debunking the notion of homo economicus, that theoretical creature who rationally seeks maximum economic utility.”

John doesn’t seem to be too fond of brain scans either. He says, “But suppose, instead of scanning people’s brains as they’re sipping wine in a laboratory, you tested them in a more realistic situation.” The results turn out to be quite different. “After three months of testing various combinations of prices, the researchers found they couldn’t sway the customers. Putting a higher price on the shrimp or any other entree didn’t make people more likely to order it.”

John critiques both MRI brain scans, which are all the rage at the moment, and the assumption that purchasing is a matter of status and self-definition. I think that John Tierney is on to something. Therefore, I replied in a comment,

Hi John,

You note that Geoffrey Miller, in his new book “Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior,” argues that “humans often waste money because of the unconscious- and mistaken- belief that our costly stuff will signal our intelligence and sterling personality traits to potential mates and allies.”

You then point out that in hypothetical situations manipulation seems to work, but in the real world people choose what they like on the basis of the product not the price. Finally, you note that in terms of really large purchases, people tend to be fairly happy with their purchases.

What is going on here? I suggest that consumer researchers are missing “context.” For example, as you note, in a restaurant where they’re spending their own money consumers were not easily manipulated.

I designed context-driven qualitative research and I “duplicate” the buying scenario. As a researcher I am frequently surprised by the results. Consumers invariably make sense, but only in terms of their own perspective. The lesson here is that we need to be non-directive and to provide some sort of context. For more details e-mail me at

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