When A Brain Knows What Will Be Popular: Social Neuroscience and Predicting the World

There’s no doubt that neuroscience is a hot field. More and more, neuroscientists have turned their attention to social phenomena, trying to understand how our brains complex deal with complex social problems. This research, although definitely grounded in young method, has given us insight into all sorts of psychological processes.

All of this is great and interesting (and not without its flaws, like any research), but there’s one especially compelling type of neuroscience research I wanted to share in this article.

A handful of studies have started to see whether the patterns of brain activity in a small group of people is related to things that happen in the outside world. Specifically, is your brain smart enough to know what’s going to become popular in the world?

In this article, I’ll cover three recent studies that have taken on this very challenge.

1. Brains Know Which TV Campaigns Will Succeed

Some commercials push us to take action and others leave us sitting mindless on our couches.[1]I truly hope that’s not just me. What distinguishes those compelling ad campaigns from the ones that are less successful? The successful ones seem to just have the magic words that tickle our brains in just the right way.

In one study, Emily Falk and her colleagues wanted to see whether a few people’s brains could pick up on which anti-smoking campaigns would actually get people to pick up the phone and get help. Lucky enough, the National Cancer Institute was rolling out three different TV campaigns for their hotline intended to help smokers quit (1-800-QUIT-NOW).

EEG_early_studies_editedTo figure out which TV campaign was the most successful, they just looked at how many calls the hotline got in the month following each ad’s TV airing. The more compelling the ad, the more calls the hotline got in the month afterward.

Of course, they weren’t all that interested in what differentiated the most successful ads from the least successful ones. Instead, they wanted to know whether brain responses could differentiate the ones that would be successful in affecting a population’s behavior.

A sample of people watched each of the ad campaigns while in an fMRI brain scanner, and they also consciously reported how persuasive the ads were. When they were looking at the brain data, though, they zeroed in on one particular area: the medial prefrontal cortex, which is a part of the brain often involved in thinking about how things matter to ourselves. They figured, the more people connected the ad to their own selves, the more likely they’d be to take action.

That’s just what they found. The group’s brain responses to the ads matched the real-world success of each campaign. What’s especially interesting, though, is that when they were asked which ads seemed the most persuasive, they were wrong! The brain responses did a better job picking up on the most successful ads, compared to asking people which ones would be successful.

2. Brains Know Which Music Will Become Popular

mri-782459_640Perhaps you remember the good ol’ days. You know what I’m talking about, of course: the days of MySpace. There was a time (and maybe there still is[2]Frankly, I refuse to look this up even though it would be easy. I wouldn’t be able to handle the flashbacks to poorly designed MySpace pages that floated before backgrounds of animated outer space gif patterns) when bands would post their songs on MySpace, and fans (or anyone, for that matter) could download them.

Why do neuroscientists care about songs uploaded to MySpace in 2006? The question is simple: when people listen to these songs now, do their brains react in a way that can predict how well the songs ended up performing commercially?

Gregory Berns and Sara Moore took a bunch of 15 second clips from songs that were available on MySpace back in 2006. Don’t get too excited—this isn’t the story of how Taylor Swift broke into the music biz. Instead, they were songs from relatively unknown artists, but based on the number of downloads the songs had received, the researchers had a good idea of each song’s popularity.[3]At least among the industry-influencers that roamed MySpace in 2006. They also tracked the songs’ sales over the 3 years after being posted to MySpace.

They took these 15 second clips and played them for people undergoing fMRI scanning. After each song played, the participants rated it for how much they liked it. This went on for a bunch of song clips.

Interestingly, people’s conscious ratings of how much they liked each song wasn’t related to the songs’ eventual success. But when the researchers looked more closely at the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain that’s been associated with “reward,” they found that the more people’s brains were active in this particular area while they listened to a song, the more that song sold in the future.


3. Brains Know Which Charities Will Receive Donations

The most recent example of brains predicting things that happen in the outside word is a study by Alexander Genevsky and Brian Knutson, published just a few months ago.[4]Did someone say “New Research Friday”?! Yes, I just did, but it’s not Friday. Oops. They were interested in microlending.

If you’re not familiar with microlending, it’s like a charity, but rather than simply giving people money, organizations like Kiva facilitate small loans that are given to people who live in poverty. As Kiva puts it, these small loans, which the recipient is expected to repay, provide “safe, affordable access to capital to those in need [and] helps people create better lives for themselves and their families.”

The organizations work kind of like Kickstarter in that people can look through the available loan requests and choose to make a loan to a person of their choosing. The question is, which people are most successful in getting people to make a microloan?

Genevsky and Knutson sampled actual loan requests on Kiva’s website and looked at whether the requests had positive emotion embedded in them. First off, they found that requests that came with greater positive emotion were funded more quickly than requests with less positive emotion. In fact, as they authors report: “…requests with ‘happy’ photographs received $5.15 more per hour than requests with ‘sad’ photographs, on average.”

“You said this study was about brains!” Right, sorry. I’m getting to that.

They also had some people review these loan requests while they were in an fMRI scanner.[5]I told you I’d get to the brains The participants even made decisions about whether they would fund the loan request. The results showed that the loan requests that evoked positive emotion were associated with nucleus accumbens (our old friend!) activity, which in turn was related to the participants’ own lending choices.

But it wasn’t just about people’s own lending decisions. Brain activity in the nucleus accumbens while people looked at lending requests was also related to the requests’ actual success on the Internet. In other words, the more people’s nucleus accumbens was activated when they saw a request, more quickly that request was funded on Kiva’s actual website. Once again, our brains can pick up on things that also motivate many other people’s to act.

Implications of Social Neuroscience: Do We Scan People’s Brains Anytime We Want to Sell Something?

All of these results suggest that the people’s brains can pick up on something that didn’t technically translate into conscious liking for a TV ad, song, or loan request but instead tapped into something more.

tile-214364_640Does this mean record labels should scan the brains of people as they listen to new songs? Should movie studios look at people’s brains as they watch new movie trailers? Wouldn’t it tell them where to invest their marketing dollars? Falk and her colleagues dub this kind of set up “neural focus groups.”

Some are skeptical of how practical these focus groups would be. For one, they would be really expensive. It ain’t cheap to scan brains, and to get enough people to have reliable data would take a decent investment. Beyond price, though, it’s hard to say that these scans would even offer strong enough evidence to guide marketing decisions. It’s not the case that the brain data perfectly predicted the real world outcomes.

Practical applications aside, this research is really interesting and raises new questions about how the brain works and why it’s able to pick up on things that end up taking off. New research will continue to address these questions and, of course, raise brand new ones.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I truly hope that’s not just me.
2. Frankly, I refuse to look this up even though it would be easy. I wouldn’t be able to handle the flashbacks to poorly designed MySpace pages that floated before backgrounds of animated outer space gif patterns
3. At least among the industry-influencers that roamed MySpace in 2006.
4. Did someone say “New Research Friday”?! Yes, I just did, but it’s not Friday. Oops.
5. I told you I’d get to the brains

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