NPR goes cuckoo for neuropuffs

First, I have to apologize to Slate’s Daniel Engber for borrowing his excellent subtitle.  I have appropriated it here to draw your attention to yet another disappointing use of neuroscience-as-soundbite by a reputable media source.

On Tuesday, public radio served up what was effectively a 30-minute advertisement of a book by marketer Martin Lindstrom, featuring the power of neuromarketing to tell us why we REALLY buy things.  The answer, of course, is in the brain – which is, as Lindstrom writes, “the ultimate no-bulls*** zone.”  “Its really quite simple,” said Lindstrom on the air, referring to using an fMRI scanner to examine what someone is “really” thinking about a particular product.  You just look at the brain’s “craving spot,” according to Lindstrom, the nucleus accumbens, and see if it lights up!  (Unfortunately, the nucleus accumbens “lights up” for many reasons, including the onset of both pleasant and unpleasant noise).

The excerpt from the book available on NPR’s website raises questions that, in fairness, may be answered later in the book.  In the study described, smoker Marlene reported that warning labels on cigarette packages caused her to smoke less. However, once she was in the scanner, her brain apparently told a different story.  Her nucleus accumbens activation in response to the labels was in interpreted to mean that “cigarette warning labels not only failed to deter smoking, but by activating the nucleus accumbens, it appeared they actually encouraged smokers to light up.”  The brief description of the experiment alludes to Marlene also being asked to report her subjective desire to smoke while she was being shown these images, but the conclusion fails to mention how this response correlated and whether it, alone and without the fMRI data, was just as good at revealing whether Marlene really wanted a smoke.  Furthermore, why would anyone expect that the cigarette warning labels, which are undoubtedly cues strongly associated with smoking, suppress craving?  The more interesting and relevant question is whether they suppress actual purchasing or lighting up at the critical moment of decision – the study, as described, does not ask the question whether the labels assist someone in exerting “willful” inhibition on giving in to the craving to smoke.

This issue comes up again and again with neuromarketing.  Greg Miller at Science summarized last fall’s op-ed debacle in the also-esteemed New York Times, reminding us that neuroscientists know that is that it’s not possible to infer a particular mental state (such as craving) from the activation of a particular brain region (such as the nucleus accumbens).  The problem of reverse inference in neuroimaging studies appears to be utterly ignored by the media who disseminate glowing reports of brain scans revealing “truth”.

The point here is not that neuromarketing is useless, though it may turn out to be a massive waste of money if low-tech, less-expensive measures for assessing “true” consumer preference are available.  My real target is not Lindstrom, who seems to be making a killing by peddling this to, among others, McDonald’s, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, The Walt Disney Co., Unilever and GlaxoSmithKline. If those companies care to spend their advertising dollars on neuromarketing studies, no problem, but a return-on-investment analysis may be in order.

The target here is the failure, on the part of NPR, to ask any interesting and moderately scientific questions about whether this stuff really works, or what the caveats might be.  Instead, what happened was that a listener who does not have extensive experience with neuroscience (i.e. most people) was misinformed about the nature of brain imaging and brain function.  (I won’t get started on the “you vs. your brain” rhetoric that plagues this entire genre of neuromarketing and neuropunditry.)

My ethical concern stems from the fear this talk of neuromarketing might inspire in consumers.  (One commenter on the NPR website wrote: “This technology getting more advanced is a really frightening idea.”)  One also wonders whether the reputation of neuroimaging research may be harmed if the public fears that those who have access to it might use it for personal gain at the expense of consumer autonomy.  (We have written about this recently in a special issue of the Journal of Consumer Behavior.)

Please, NPR, when you talk about science, take the opportunity to accurately educate the public about the marvelous complexity of our brains, rather than reducing hard-won knowledge to sound bites.  Especially when those sound-bites are in the marketing service of someone else.

– Emily Murphy