Are Sales People Becoming Mind Readers?

Would you be wary oftechnology that might tell a sales clerk what you are most likely to buy, even if you think you haven't made up your own mind?

You would be a sucker for whatever the clerk is peddling because he or she might know more about what you want than you do yourself.

But what if the same technology could make you love to go on a diet, spend a few hours at the gym or do your homework?

Proving once again that there's no such thing as a free lunch, cutting-edge science is teaming up with commercial industries to literally peer inside the human brain and figure out how to make products that we will find more difficult to resist. It's an advertising executive's nirvana.

Cutting Edge: Inside the Brain
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That may be a bit scary, but the same technology could lead to better products, because stuff could be tested even before it is built, and it could help make some distasteful chores more palatable by appealing directly to the brain's pleasure center.

Marketers Are Learning How to Literally Read Our Minds

This isn't science fiction. It's "neuromarketing," an embryonic field that could revolutionize consumerism. The brain scanners that have fascinated academic researchers for the past couple of decades are moving into the commercial sector as marketers learn how to literally read our minds.

Ale Smidts, professor of marketing research at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, coined the term in 2002, and it has caught on among industries ranging from auto manufacturers to soft drink producers. The field, which now includes several companies that specialize in neuromarketing, builds on work that has been a huge boon to medical and scientific research.

Scanners like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have allowed researchers to examine the inner workings of the brain. Blood rushes to areas of the brain that are activated by various stimuli, causing them to "light up" and thus reveal which parts of the brain are responsible for such things as memory, bodily functions, and yes, pleasure.

That has led some marketers to hope they can find a "buy button" somewhere in the human brain. Figure out how to punch that button and the sales will start rolling in. But that has been largely dismissed as hype by serious researchers. The brain probably does not have a buy button, but it certainly has a pleasure center, and therein lies the attraction.

Hype, Hope Surround Neuroimaging in Commerce

That could be both good and bad, according to Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. Ariely and a colleague, psychiatrist Gregory Berns of Emory University, are coauthors of a paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience on the "hope and hype of neuroimaging in business."

Ariely said in a telephone interview that "finding exactly how the pleasure center works can lead to products that are more pleasurable or more addictive." Ariely described himself as "cautiously opportunistic" because he believes neuromarketing could lead to better products, but he is also concerned about potential negative impacts.

In their paper, Ariely and Berns note that "the use of neuroimaging by commercial manufacturers to design a more appealing food product is both feasible and likely." So far, so good, but they go on to add this:

"The drawback to such an approach is the possibility of creating food products that are so highly tuned to neural responses that individuals may over-eat and become obese." And they pose this question:

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