Deciding Without Knowing It?

In the paper “Predicting Persuasion-Induced Behavior Change from the Brain” from The Journal of Neuroscience , UCLA researchers reveal that they were better able to predict test subjects’ behavior days in advance by monitoring activity in the medial prefrontal cortex than by asking them what they would do.  Psyorg.com explains:

The new study by Lieberman and lead author Emily Falk, who earned her doctorate in psychology from UCLA this month, shows that increased activity in a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex among individuals viewing and listening to public service announcement slides on the importance of using sunscreen strongly indicated that these people were more likely to increase their use of sunscreen the following week, even beyond the people’s own expectations.

“From this region of the brain, we can predict for about three-quarters of the people whether they will increase their use of sunscreen beyond what they say they will do,” Lieberman said. “If you just go by what people say they will do, you get fewer than half of the people accurately predicted, and using this brain region, we could do significantly better.”

“While most people’s self-reports are not very accurate, they do not realize their self-reports are wrong so often in predicting future behavior,” Falk said. “It is surprising to find out that some technique might be able to predict my own behavior better than I can. Yet the brain seems to reveal something important that we may not even realize.”

And, of course, this insight into the brain has to be put to tasks of persuading (and even manipulating?) people:

in the future it may be possible to create what we are calling ‘neural focus groups.’ Instead of talking with people about what they think they will do, a public health or advertising agency can study their brains and learn what they are really likely to do and how an advertisement would be likely to affect millions of other people as well.”

They suggest the technology is portable enough to be cost-effective and possibly in widespread use in the future. Falk speculates about what the activity in this region might mean about how we form our judgments:

While some people have emphasized reasoning and emotion as key areas on which to base advertising campaigns, a key question may be whether messages and advertisements can be produced that “make people feel, ‘This is about me and is relevant to my preferences and motivations,'” Falk said. “Perhaps effective messages reinforce our values, our self-identity, what motivates us. We will learn much more as we continue this line of research over the years.”

H/T: The Philosopher’s Eye

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