Current Issue
Raising the Bar
Hey, What's the Big Idea
Red Carpet Treatment
From the CEO
Moving Forward
On Point
The Last Word Past Issues
Other Publications Make a Gift
Contact Us


Enter any grocery store and, like it or not, endless choice is yours–a baffling array of toothpastes; shampoos for every state and stage of human hair; paper towels that are eco-friendly, flowery, or thick and brawny; soups that are healthy, homemade, meaty, or manly. Car lots stretch for miles with choices in every size, style, color, and combination. Shirts from L.L. Bean come in hundreds of colors, fabrics, patterns, weights, and styles. Short of keeping our noses in a copy of Consumer Reports, how do we decide?

     We’re able to quickly sort through the confusion by focusing on preferences that we feel reflect our own identity, says Emory psychiatry professor Clint Kilts. Businesses usually approach consumers assuming that the objective physical properties of a particular product are what drive decisions, but the resolution to buy is really based on more subtle motivators related to preference, he explains. Preferences dominate most of the choices we make in life. We may have a nostalgic preference for a taste we developed as a child or a social, cultural, or age-related preference. And preferences are a handy way to economize our behavior so that we make it home from the store in time to eat before midnight.
     Kilts has scientific evidence to back up his theories. He has spent years studying the brain’s response to rewards and punishment, specifically its functioning in people with addictions or other cognitive diseases and disorders. And he sometimes uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to view the physical manifestations of cognition. Unlike conventional MRI, which is a more static image of the body’s anatomy, fMRI can highlight subtle changes in the brain during different disease states and also the changes that correspond to various thoughts and emotions.
     While collaborating on a study with Rick Gilkey, a Goizueta Business School professor with an adjunct appointment in psychiatry, he became fascinated with the negative reactions that consumers often have to business and advertising and the idea that business has not done a particularly good job of interfacing with its consuming public.
     As a scientist, Kilts is accustomed to educating himself about a particular problem, forming a hypothesis, and then devising experiments to test it. He discovered that in business, however, decisions often are based on very little information, derived unscientifically, that is then accepted as dogma. Major advertising decisions often are decided by focus groups or market surveys that are inherently biased and flawed. It seemed that business was seeking a methodology to support its decisions but had not found one that reflected the reality of the consumer’s decision-making process. Along with longtime Atlanta advertising executive Joey Reimann, also a Goizueta adjunct professor, Kilts helped found BrightHouse, a company based on the belief that industries could improve their inadequate understanding of consumer behavior through a scientific approach.
     As the company’s scientific director and an expert in the field of imaging, he wanted to integrate the advanced capabilities of functional neuroimaging with business theory to help corporations get more in touch, in a very broad sense, with their consumers’ psyches.
     This idea didn’t sit well, however, with some consumer advocacy groups, who felt that shoppers’ psyches should remain untouched.
     Last December, Emory University President James Wagner received an angry letter from Gary Ruskin, executive director of the consumer watchdog group, Commercial Alert, accusing Emory faculty of using imaging equipment intended for patient care to further the marketing aims of corporations. The group also posted the letter and a press release on its website. Emory scientists, it said, were finding “new ways to subjugate the mind and manipulate it for commercial gain.”
     Rather than reporting from firsthand knowledge, however, the organization was responding to an October 26, 2003, article in the New York Times entitled “There’s a Sucker Born in Every Medial Prefrontal Cortex” that described “neuromarketing” research at several different institutions, including Baylor College of Medicine, Harvard Business School, and Emory University.
     A separate article in Forbes magazine characterized the research aims at finding “a ‘buy button’ inside the skull.” And the Times story hailed the neuroscience wing at Emory University Hospital as “the epicenter of the neuromarketing world.”
     That last description turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration, given that the research in question was Kilts’ single neuroimaging study, conducted in 13 adult volunteers and funded by a $4,800 grant from BrightHouse.
     BrightHouse agreed to conduct the study for a Fortune 500 client to help determine the neurologic basis for what drives consumers’ choices. In other words, how is the brain actually functioning when an individual is making decisions and expressing preferences? Kilts and Gilkey recruited volunteers for the study and presented them with an array of pictures of 100 objects grouped into categories, such as fruits and vegetables, cars, dogs, celebrities, etc., and asked them to rate their preferences from –5 to +5, from strong dislike to strong like. Then, while using fMRI technology to scan the participants’ brains, they presented pictures of objects in the extreme positive and negative ranges.
     The researchers found that positive and negative preferences are expressed within two distinct areas of the brain. As the volunteers viewed pictures of objects they strongly preferred, areas of the brain associated with reward processing became involved. The mere image of a prized object such as a shiny SUV or a home-grown tomato could cause this section to light up on the MRI. Preferred objects also consistently activated a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, which scientists already had associated with a person’s sense of self.
     Although at first Kilts was surprised to see this self-referential area activated, it helped explain why people are so adamant about protecting their own personal preferences and denigrating the competition. “Certain preferred products become part of the repository of our knowledge of self,” he says. "Defending your preference is like defending yourself. For instance, if your Chevy truck is a +5 to you in terms of preference, you may go out of your way to find somebody to argue with about how their Ford truck is garbage. A person with a very strong preference for jazz might abhor other kinds of music and make an argument that blues is ill-formed and primitive.” The desire to strongly defend self-referential preferences extends to sports teams, clothing, and even barbecue.
     “This could mean a lot for companies,” Kilts says. “It means understanding the concept of brand loyalty. Companies bombard us with products and messages and associations to try and make us aware of the physical characteristics of products. That is an inefficient way of trying to make us develop brand loyalty.”
     Consumers, on the other hand, are making decisions based on a positive preference that reflects a holistic representation of a company or product. If we identify with a product, we are really identifying with that company, Kilts says.
     Asked about the Commercial Alert allegations, Kilts believes the group did not take the time to find out what his research was all about.
     “Their criticism that we were trying to find a ‘buy button’ really galvanized my belief that the public has a great cynicism about business and a real fear of it,” says Kilts. “They don’t see business as being in any way a cooperative member of society. Even though business has gone out of its way to deserve this skepticism, I think this is counterproductive for our society and for our economy. Because our lives are supported by occupations, everything would be better if businesses were more aware of what consumers really want.”
     Kilts also disliked having the term “neuromarketing” applied to his research. “We were never interested in putting people in a machine and having them taste this candy bar versus that candy bar, then showing them an advertisement and having them re-taste the candy bar,” he explains.
     “We haven’t learned enough about the brain to be able to interpret those kinds of studies. And a ‘buy button’ doesn’t exist, because we take pride in our right to self-determination. We are not going to find this neural area and then give big business a code they can play on the radio and we all march like automatons down to the store to buy a particular product. That shows a real lack of understanding of how people decide what to do. We believed the real way to educate business would be not to change the behavior of the consumer, but to change the behavior of companies. Businesses could better profit through a closer and more understanding relationship with the consumer.”
     Kilts is no longer involved with BrightHouse, but he and other faculty members in psychiatry continue to use functional imaging to study the neurologic basis for both positive and negative social behaviors, including altruism, cooperation, impulse regulation, addiction, and rewards processing. They believe finding the biologically imbedded basis for behaviors can help us understand the physical basis for our social interactions and ideally help correct behavioral disorders.

Holly Korschun is director of science communications.



current issue . past issues . contact us.
make a gift . other publications

Copyright © Emory University, 2005. All Rights Reserved