Marketing Jul 7, 2016

Can Neu­ro­science Make Your Mes­sage Stickier?

A cut­ting edge tech­nique pin­points how our brains react to fear appeals in marketing.

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Moran Cerf

Eric Greenleaf

Tom Meyvis

Vicki G. Morwitz

Sev­er­al years ago, the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion launched a nation­al adver­tis­ing cam­paign high­light­ing the gris­ly dan­gers of smok­ing. Tips From For­mer Smok­ers” fea­tured stark, dis­turb­ing imagery of real for­mer smok­ers and the toll that tobac­co addic­tion has tak­en on their bod­ies. Some had ampu­tat­ed fin­gers; oth­ers revealed a gap­ing hole in their throat.

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The cam­paign suc­cess­ful­ly reduced the num­ber of smok­ers. But while such fear appeals can be effec­tive for pub­lic health, envi­ron­men­tal aware­ness, or polit­i­cal cam­paigns, the method comes with both risks and limitations.

For one, over­ly strong fear appeals in adver­tis­ing some­times back­fire, caus­ing view­ers to men­tal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly with­draw from the mes­sage — a phe­nom­e­non known as the boomerang effect.” More­over, some of the biggest risks humans face, like cli­mate change, are very abstract in nature — and try as we might, it is hard to get peo­ple to engage at all.

But what if there was a way to avoid the boomerang effect and also per­suade your audi­ence to engage with an abstract fear?

Most of our brain is hid­den from us. … Nor­mal­ly, we have no access to what­ev­er is hap­pen­ing under the hood.”

New research from the Kel­logg School uses a cut­ting-edge neu­ro­science tech­nique to iden­ti­fy the sweet spot where fear-based cam­paigns have the utmost impact. It finds that peo­ple can increase the lev­el of fear they expe­ri­ence while watch­ing a piece of con­tent if they imag­ine a spe­cif­ic scary aspect of it before they start watch­ing. This in turn increas­es the like­li­hood that con­tent, such as an ad’s mes­sage, will reg­is­ter, be remem­bered, and poten­tial­ly affect future behavior.

If I show you an ad against drink­ing and dri­ving, will that real­ly make you do it less? We do not know,” says Moran Cerf, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing and neu­ro­science at the Kel­logg School.

As a start, we decid­ed to inves­ti­gate your abil­i­ty to con­trol your own expe­ri­ence of fear,” he says. We want­ed to see if you your­self can iden­ti­fy the things that will help the mes­sage influ­ence you the most.”

Watch­ing Brain Cells Fire

Pre­vi­ous neu­ro­science research in the area of fear con­trol has focused exten­sive­ly on study­ing people’s abil­i­ty to reduce neg­a­tive emo­tions. Less atten­tion has been paid to the oppo­site phe­nom­e­non, a vol­un­tary increase in neg­a­tive feel­ings. This is like­ly because fear and sad­ness are gen­er­al­ly unde­sir­able and are often intense enough as is.

How­ev­er, when it comes to per­suad­ing the pub­lic, increas­ing fear in view­ers has the poten­tial to save lives.

Cerf col­lab­o­rat­ed with Eric Green­leaf, Tom Meyvis, and Vic­ki Mor­witz at New York Uni­ver­si­ty. They record­ed, in real time, how fright­ened a per­son was — not by ask­ing them but by actu­al­ly eaves­drop­ping on the inner work­ings of their brain using elec­trodes implant­ed in their heads. The process, called sin­gle-neu­ron record­ing, tracks the fir­ing activ­i­ty of brain cells linked to fear.

Sin­gle-neu­ron record­ing is typ­i­cal­ly used only in ani­mals. But the tech­nique can be used for human stud­ies in unique sit­u­a­tions where the research is con­duct­ed dur­ing brain surgery for epilep­sy treatment.

In such a treat­ment, physi­cians sur­gi­cal­ly remove the area of the brain where seizures orig­i­nate to cure patients whose epilep­sy can­not be suc­cess­ful­ly treat­ed with med­ica­tion. To find the cor­rect region on which to oper­ate, neu­ro­sur­geons implant thin, hol­low elec­trodes direct­ly into the brain. A set of even thin­ner wires can be insert­ed through these elec­trodes to detect fir­ing from indi­vid­ual neu­rons. The patients can then par­tic­i­pate in research stud­ies while they wait in the hos­pi­tal for doc­tors to iden­ti­fy the exact onset source of their seizures.

Most of our brain is hid­den from us. It oper­ates, and we see the out­put. Nor­mal­ly, we have no access to what­ev­er is hap­pen­ing under the hood,” Cerf says. Now with sin­gle-neu­ron tech­niques, we do have access.”

Sin­gle-cell record­ing gath­ers dif­fer­ent data than oth­er tech­niques like fMRI and EEG that look at brain activ­i­ty — and is par­tic­u­lar­ly ide­al for study­ing feel­ings, says Cerf.

What we can see when we are using sin­gle-neu­ron record­ing is how emo­tions are cod­ed in the brain,” Cerf says. We can not only see where you feel things like sad­ness and anger— but can also see them as they dawn on us, some­times even ear­li­er than your sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence occurs.”

Innate vs. Learned Fears

In this research, par­tic­i­pants showed an imme­di­ate fear of spi­ders. But gen­er­at­ing a fear response to cli­mate change required some effort. What makes these two threats so different?

Cerf explains that some fears are innate, while oth­ers have to be learned. Cli­mate change falls into the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry. It is hard to feel vis­cer­al­ly scared about a chang­ing environment.

Changes are occur­ring on a scale that is rel­a­tive­ly slow, and the prob­lem is so immense that any habits we change feel incon­se­quen­tial,” he says. Plus, humans as a species have nev­er expe­ri­enced the kind of exis­ten­tial threat that, say, erad­i­cat­ed the dinosaurs. Our brain does not have a mech­a­nism that allows us to expe­ri­ence intu­itive fear when cli­mate change is evoked, as this phe­nom­e­non is new to us.”

Spi­ders, though, are like­ly to be part of our innate fear.

We do not need to be actu­al­ly bit­ten by a spi­der to be scared of it. Our evo­lu­tion­ary ances­tors have devel­oped the fear mech­a­nisms from years of bad expe­ri­ences and passed them to us,” Cerf says.

Emo­tions are the evo­lu­tion­ary alarm sys­tem that enables us to use past knowl­edge with­out the need to encounter all threats our­selves,” Cerf says. Young mon­keys who have nev­er seen a snake in their life still exhib­it a fear of snakes when shown a pic­ture of one. We have the same ten­den­cy with spi­ders, but not with cli­mate change — or, for that mat­ter, risky, long-term finan­cial investments.”

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Increas­ing Fear

In their study, Cerf and his col­leagues mea­sured fear respons­es in neu­ro­sur­gi­cal patients who had under­gone the brain elec­trodes implan­ta­tion. The patients watched a num­ber of video clips, includ­ing one from Al Gore’s An Incon­ve­nient Truth,” to test their emo­tion­al response. Cli­mate change was delib­er­ate­ly cho­sen as it is an abstract and dis­tant fear — some­thing humans have dif­fi­cul­ty imag­in­ing and feel­ing vis­cer­al­ly scared of.

Each patient watched the clip in two con­di­tions: as they nat­u­ral­ly would and again imme­di­ate­ly after men­tal­ly focus­ing on the aspects of cli­mate change that fright­en them — like see­ing loved ones hurt.

While watch­ing the clip as they nat­u­ral­ly would, fear-respon­sive neu­rons fired at a rate com­pa­ra­ble to base­line lev­els. In oth­er words, the sub­jects did not feel par­tic­u­lar­ly scared. How­ev­er, when they imag­ined spe­cif­ic aspects of cli­mate change that were tai­lored to their own fears, the fir­ing rate of these same neu­rons increased.

But crit­i­cal­ly, not all threats are cre­at­ed equal, and not all can be con­trolled. The researchers find that this tac­tic is most use­ful when address­ing fears that are abstract rather than more instinc­tu­al or innate.

To demon­strate this, the researchers showed the patients anoth­er clip, one that was inher­ent­ly ter­ri­fy­ing — a large spi­der crawl­ing towards the cam­era. Right off the bat, this clip elicit­ed a much sharp­er fear response than the cli­mate change video ever did — the type of response that might be expect­ed to spur a boomerang effect. Ask­ing the patients to imag­ine some­thing even more fright­en­ing about spi­ders before­hand did not increase their fear.

Impli­ca­tions for Marketers

The results sug­gest that we can enhance fear response to an oth­er­wise abstract threat by iden­ti­fy­ing an aspect of the threat that is par­tic­u­lar­ly scary to us. Tai­lor­ing the expe­ri­ence around that threat makes the con­tent more like­ly to be remem­bered as a threat, poten­tial­ly allow­ing for a change in our behav­ior with­out enhanc­ing the threat too much — which would cause us to recoil in disgust.

And if enough peo­ple are fright­ened by the same aspects of an abstract threat, it may be pos­si­ble for mar­keters or those mak­ing pub­lic ser­vice announce­ments to tai­lor the orig­i­nal mes­sage accordingly.

With the help of these patients, we actu­al­ly learned what tech­niques and thoughts they trig­gered to enhance their cli­mate-change fear,” Cerf says. Now that we have iden­ti­fied the opti­mal ways to increase fear across indi­vid­u­als, we can cal­i­brate the mes­sage to make sure an ad or a speech by Vice Pres­i­dent Gore has a stronger effect.”

How­ev­er, Cerf does not see sin­gle-neu­ron record­ing becom­ing a wide­spread method of mea­sure­ment for mar­ket or con­sumer research any time soon, as it requires the par­tic­i­pa­tion of patients and a hospital’s neu­ro­surgery depart­ment. But he thinks orga­ni­za­tions and mar­keters can gain busi­ness insights from sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies that employ this and oth­er neu­ro­science method­olo­gies, per­haps by hir­ing a neu­ro­sci­en­tist to inter­pret the often-impen­e­tra­ble sci­en­tif­ic literature.

Lead­ers should read up on the lat­est dis­cov­er­ies in the pop­u­lar press on fun­da­men­tal top­ics like mem­o­ry, per­sua­sion, self-con­trol, and emo­tion reg­u­la­tion — sub­jects that appeal to both neu­ro­sci­en­tists and mar­keters,” Cerf says.

The rea­son I’m at Kel­logg is that there is a move­ment — a trend of neu­ro­sci­en­tists who try to bridge this gap between neu­ro­science and mar­ket­ing,” he says. I think that we are in a state right now where neu­ro­science is answer­ing a lot of the ques­tions that mar­ket­ing prac­ti­tion­ers care about and were unable to ful­ly address quan­ti­ta­tive­ly for years. It was hard because of the dif­fi­cul­ty of quan­ti­fy­ing our psy­chol­o­gy. Now, with the help of neu­ro­science, we can start look­ing at ways to break down com­plex psy­cho­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­na using tan­gi­ble, testable metrics.”

Featured Faculty

Moran Cerf

Associate Professor of Marketing

About the Writer

Meeri Kim is a freelance science and health writer.

About the Research

Citation: Cerf, Moran, Eric Greenleaf, Tom Meyvis, and Vicki G. Morwitz. 2015. “Using Single-Neuron Recording in Marketing: Opportunities, Challenges, and an Application to Fear Enhancement in Communications.” Journal of Marketing Research. 52 No. 4: 530–545.

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