You’re predictable!

Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy
BrainEthics
Published in
4 min readJul 27, 2022

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For a long time, studies in neuroscience have shown that human action is predictable. Recent studies show just how predictable we are.

Imagine being a part of Benjamin Libet’s famous studies back in the 1980s. Here, you would be seated and given electrodes on your finger and a few on your skull. The electrode on your finger would measure your muscle being activated, while the skull-based electrodes would tap into your brain’s activity.

Your task would be simple: pay attention to a rapidly rotating watch and notice the time at which you decide to move your finger. You would learn the task easily, and it would also feel like an easy (and quite boring) task.

Libet and his colleagues studied the data from the brain, the finger motor behavior, and the reports of when people felt like they made their decisions.

What Libet found amazed the world: the brain activity preceded the conscious decision to move! In other words, the electrode on the skull picked up clear changes — something that was to be labeled the “readiness potential” — long before the awareness of choosing or the actual movement. This is shown nicely by the following figure:

Activity in the brain (blue graph) showed activity changes long before there was a feeling of a decision to move (“Decision”). From Psychology Today

The measured brain activity happened roughly half a second before the feeling of making a choice. It might not sound like a lot, but the consequences are substantial: your (unconscious) brain makes even the most simple choice before you feel like making the choice yourself.

From milliseconds to seconds

Based on the study by Libet, many researchers now started to focus on replicating the study and trying different variants of it. For example, one study showed that it was possible to predict human choice several seconds before they made it.

One such study was documented by John Dylan Haynes (full PDF article here), who used fMRI to show that “free will” decisions could be predicted several seconds before the actual choice happened, and long before participants felt like making a choice.

The study by Haynes and colleagues showed brain activity preceding free will choices up to 8 seconds prior to the choice.

Predicting consumer choice

Not surprisingly, studies have also looked at whether we can use the same techniques to predict less abstract decisions. Instead of pressing a button, would it be possible to use brain activity to predict more complex, everyday decisions?

A study by Knutson and colleagues in 2007 Showed exactly this. Using fMRI to study deep brain activity while participants made decisions on product purchases, the research team showed that they could predict the likelihood that a person would purchase a product . The crazy bit here is that they could do this through the brain responses when participants were passively looking at the product. This brain activity occured 8–12 seconds before the actual choice, which was also the time at which participants felt they made their choice.

Brain activity in deep brain structures such as the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) showed stronger activity during passive product viewing for items that were subsequently chosen compared to those that were not chosen.

In our own studies of choice and the brain, we predicted not only the likelihood of choice but how much people are willing to pay for a product!

In the study, we asked participants to look at products for a few seconds. Then, there was a break for a few seconds, after which they were asked to rate how much they were willing to pay for the product.

We looked at a particular brain response that is related to motivation, something called frontal asymmetry. Basically, the more activation you have in your left compared to your right frontal part of the brain, the more approach behavior you tend to show. Stronger activity in the right relative to the left frontal cortex is related to avoidance behaviors.

But this research has been for typical approach vs avoidance behaviors, not consumer behaviors. What we found surprised us: the more activity we found in the left vs right frontal lobe, the more likely it was that the person would buy the product.

The real kicker was this: the same frontal asymmetry also predicted that they would be willing to pay more for the product!

Left: the EEG electrodes we used (marked with green). Right: a chart showing how frontal asymmetry in different frequency bands (alpha, beta, gamma) occurred during consumer choice. Warmer colors in beta and gamma frequencies indicate stronger left than right brain activity, i.e., “approach” behaviors.
The relationship between frontal brain asymmetry and willingness to pay, in three different frequency bands. The steeper the red regression line, the stronger the relationship to the willingness to pay for products. The results showed that the gamma frequency showed the strongest predictive ability of purchasing behaviors.

We have later run the same test in a wide variety of conditions, and now testing about 5–6,000 participants each year in consumer-related decisions. We have done this numerous times on live demos and shows, and even in a TV show where we accurately predicted which dress a woman would choose — while her husband chose the dress she least wanted…

Being predictable

In conclusion, we are predictable. You are predictable. Your unconscious brain signals what your intentions are long before you’re even aware of making that choice. From the move of a single finger to our willingness to pay for a product. Our unconscious brains make decisions long before we feel that we have made up our minds. You cannot ask a person about this, you absolutely need to measure brain activity to get this information. This is the true power of neuromarketing and consumer neuroscience.

#neuromarketing #consumerneuroscience #prediction #consumerbehavior #neuroscience #freewill #decisionmaking

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Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy
BrainEthics

Applying the latest neuroscience to solve world problems and challenge our minds.