Jonah Lehrer and Tom H. C. Anderson Discuss How We Decide
Today I’m talking to Jonah Lehrer who has written several books on Neuroscience and was recently interviewed on the Colbert Report:
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He believes his new book, How We Decide, may be very relevant to Marketing professionals. I think perhaps some of us in market research are probably Neuroscientists too, so today I asked him a few questions.
TOM: What I love about your work is that you ask why a lot: Why does veal stock and MSG taste so good? why is a certain piece of music or art so popular? I don’t think we as market researchers do this enough. That is identify something that works really well and figure out everything about it, deconstruct, and then re-engineer it if you will. Can you give us some tips on how to best go about this? How do you identify a topic of interest?
JONAH: I think the key is to ask very obvious questions. Why do we still read Shakespeare? Why do we stare at Jackson Pollack paintings (they’re just conglomerations of dripped paint) or pay tens of millions for a Mark Rothko canvas? Why are Kanye West’s samples so captivating to the acoustic cortex? Artists are constantly being forced to reverse-engineer the brain. By reverse-engineering the art - by trying to understand why, exactly, it resonates with us - we can learn about the mind.
And, of course, this isn’t just true for art. The same principle can be applied to marketing. Pick a successful ad campaign and try to figure out why it works.
TOM: How can you go about uncovering the secrets about why it works?
JONAH: That’s the hard part. I’m afraid my advice is pretty pedestrian: Do some research, read some science papers, talk to some scientists. Great art and successful ads rarely work for simple reasons.
TOM: You’ve researched the history of “taste of deliciousness” (MSG) or the ‘Umami receptor’ in humans. Did marketers leverage this knowledge effectively? How does the MSG backlash play into this. What should food marketers do?
JONAH: Well, I think food companies were certainly there long before scientists. When scientists were still denying the possibility of a fifth taste sensation, big food companies were putting MSG into everything from Campbell’s soup to chicken boullion cubes to Ritz crackers. They knew this white powder tasted delicious, even if they couldn’t explain why.
TOM: You’ve said “The Future of Science is Art”, I think I agree that the mix is at least 50/50 if not a little more weighted towards the art. But can you elaborate a little on what you mean?
JONAH: I think we need to find a place for the artist within the experimental process. The current constraints of science make it clear that the breach between our two cultures is not merely an academic problem that stifles conversation at cocktail parties. Rather, it is a practical problem, and it holds back science’s theories. If we want answers to our most essential questions, such as “Where does consciousness come from?”, then we will need to bridge our cultural divide. By heeding the wisdom of the arts, science can gain the kinds of new insights and perspectives that are the seeds of scientific progress. If nothing else, artists can teach scientists to ask better questions.
TOM: You’ve said the brain looks for/likes patterns (Music etc.). As a market researcher and data miner I can relate as that’s what we spend most of our time looking for as well. I also see that humans are so in need of patterns to understand things around them that they often create patterns where there are none, that’s why statistics are useful as a check. What I’m wondering is, how can we leverage this need with consumers? Can we give them, or tease them with patterns to increase loyalty or purchasing? If so what would they look like?
JONAH: I actually think the easiest way to manipulate this to deviate from the patterns we expect. Once a pattern becomes predictable, the brain starts to ignore it. We get bored; attention is a scare resource, so why waste it on something that’s perfectly predictable. My favorite ads are full of surprise - that’s why I watch them and remember them.
TOM: Do we all have the same brains or do different peoples brain crave different things? I’m wondering how this works into customer segmentation? From a Neuroscience perspective, do we tend to make decisions similarly or are their huge differences between people within similar cultures and/or of different cultures?
JONAH: People are astonishingly different. The brain is a plastic thing, which means that people raised in different cultures will have brains that are wired differently. The end result is a different set of desires. When I listen to the minor chords of Indian music, I hear dissonance. I’m sure Indians think the same thing about Bach.
TOM: In testing new product concepts in market research one of the key questions is usually, “how new and different is this…?”. Are there any brands/products that have done a good job walking the line between new and different and familiar (patterns)? Others that you think have gone too far?
JONAH: The first product that comes to mind is the iPhone. On the one hand, it pioneered a new touch interface. It was new and exciting. And yet, at the same time, the new interface was also completely intuitive, so that it didn’t take hours and hours to figure out. That, to me, is the ideal: to make something new - novelty triggers a rush of pleasurable dopamine - but not to make the newness a frustrating experience.
For those who want to learn more about Jonah’s thoughts on NeuroScience and how we decide you can visit his blog here.