Market Research, Technology and the Improbability of Free Will
The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article in their Science section last week on recent experiments into how people make decisions. What they have discovered, using fMRIs and cleverly designed experiments, is that people make certain types of choices before they are aware of, or act on, those choices. What’s more, people decide up to 10 seconds before they themselves are aware of the choice they have made. Here is how the WSJ article explained one of the experiments:
While inside the brain scanner, the students watched random letters stream across a screen. Whenever they felt the urge, they pressed a button with their right hand or a button with their left hand. Then they marked down the letter that had been on the screen in the instant they had decided to press the button. Studying the brain behavior leading up to the moment of conscious decision, the researchers identified signals that let them know when the students had decided to move 10 seconds or so before the students knew it themselves. About 70% of the time, the researchers could also predict which button the students would push.
The idea that we make decisions before we think we make them is almost as counter-intuitive as quantum entanglement. The question is: does knowing there is a “preconscious” component to how we make decisions make any difference in the real world? Up until recently, had you asked this question about quantum entanglement, the answer would have been, “No, it makes no difference in the real world at all.” That was, until we found a few practical uses for “spooky action at a distance.” So perhaps we can ask the same question about the relationship between choice and that bugbear of a concept, Free Will.
You don’t have to be a full-blown Functionalist like Dennett to appreciate the implications of influencing choice by tinkering with what people think of as Free Will. The WSJ article cites a Dutch study where researchers,
…found that people struggling to make relatively complicated consumer choices — which car to buy, apartment to rent or vacation to take — appeared to make sounder decisions when they were distracted and unable to focus consciously on the problem.
So is it a good thing or a bad thing that distracted people, operating on gut feelings, make better choices? I suppose that depends upon whether or not what you’re selling counts as a “sound decision.”
In the future, I can imagine advertisers or salespeople learning how to take advantage of this phenomenon, perhaps incorporating it into NLP-based approaches. Likewise, if smaller or perhaps portable fMRIs become more widely available and affordable, it might become possible to “cut out the middleman” of moderator interpretation in qualitative research by recording consumer preferences at the moment they occur in the brain. This would give you an immediate and highly accurate reading of how people respond to your branding, like the character Cayce in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition who is a highly paid marketing consultant because she becomes physically ill in the presence of bad branding.
Regardless of the scientific and philosophical debate over Free Will, consciousness and decision making, companies still need to get their data (branding, positioning, etc.) into the heads of consumers in order for them to make any decision at all. Consumers aren’t going to abandon the idea that they exercise their free will when they make choices, and it’s the job of marketing to “help” this process. As we better understand how the brain or “mind” works, companies will attenuate their advertising and sales tactics – and it will be interesting to see how consumers respond once they understand these new marketing and sales tactics.