Tricks and wonders

At the opening symposium of the Donders Institute (Netherlands) last November, Victor Lamme showed a video that fully grasped the attention of the packed audience. It was a filmed experiment in psychology where people were being fooled by simple, even obvious  tricks.

It introduced his discussion on the nature of consciousness and awareness, with difficult questions such as: can we say of someone who is not aware of what s/he perceives that s/he is still conscious? Or as Victor Lamme says it elsewhere: ‘In my research I want to separate becoming conscious of the outside world from the reporting on it’.

The talk was good, with Lamme suggesting a definition of consciousness that included functional and structural criteria of neural activity. However, at the very end a question from the floor completely destroyed his argument, when someone pointed that, according to the criteria developed in Lamme’s definition, neural activity during sleep would in fact also qualify for his proposed definition of consciousness – quite a problem !!

Anyway, I have found a similar video demonstrating how easy it is to trick conscious and fully aware people. It is less academic than the one presented by Lamme but it has the benefit of working on you, the viewer. So, will you be tricked? (please answer the anonymous poll thereafter).

It would seem that using the language of neuroscience makes it easier to trick people into believing false statements. This argument was made by a group of psychologists in a celebrated paper from the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience last year, but it deserves a third glance – at least for its ironic conclusion.

On irony… Think about it: If making something sound ‘neurosciency’ makes it easier to believe for others, how much easier is it to make people believe an argument about neurosciency appendages in a psychology / neuroscience peer-reviewed journal… In fact, every sucker around should be clamouring to believe that paper. I say sucker, and by that I mean myself – who liked the argument immediately, and I guess non neuro-scientists like the media, popular press… and psychologists?

This is where ‘celebrated’ comes in, as the paper was popularized in the media, and the paper spent quite a bit of time congratulating itself and the subject as “it is hardly mysterious that members of the public should find psychological research fascinating” (p. 470)

So are the results really good? Well, maybe… and maybe not. The authors noted old evidence that longer explanations seem more credible to the unsuspecting public, and the neuro-sciency explanations in the test were longer… Last week a neuroscience blogger noted that what “the authors have strictly shown is that longer, more jargon-filled explanations are rated as better – which is an interesting finding, but is not necessarily specific to neuroscience.” This point is also admitted in the original paper where the authors “believe that our results are not necessarily limited to neuroscience or even to psychology” (p. 476), and is really just what Kikas (2003) had already said.

Well, if the papers fundamental argument is weak, the popular reaction ironically  underlines its thesis but at the same time it questions the quality of the research… Then by extension, does it also question neuro-science research as a whole? or just the accompanying psychology?

Neurofinance explained

Here is a video interview of Peter Bossaerts, one of the foremost neuroeconomist around. He specializes in neurofinance, and in this interview he explains the basics of it to Arvetica, a Swiss consulting firm. Bossaerts is indeed based at the Swiss Finance Institute and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, in addition to CalTech.


^Version française ci-dessous^

I found a nice and short video interview of Pierre Moorkens, CEO of the Institute of Neuromanagement in Belgium. Useful, since “neuromanagement” is still not very well defined: it provides some tentative directions.


As it is in French, it reminded me that even if I blog in (a clumsy) English, I see no reason why a blog couln’t be multilingual. My native language is French, and it might be enriching to use it when some “neuro-” topic is available in French. Even if that seems dead obvious, I am struck by the lack of multilingual blogs on the web. So here is the beginning of the experiment: on this blog, you might read posts in different languages.


J’ai trouvé une vidéo courte et sympa d’une interview de Pierre Moorkens, CEO de l’Institut de Neuromanagement, en Belgique. Utile, puisque le “neuromanagement” reste mal défini: l’interview fournit quelques pistes de développement.


Comme la vidéo est en français, cela me rappelle que bien que ce blog soit en anglais, je ne vois pas pourquoi il ne pourrait pas acueillir d’autres langues aussi. Ma langue natale est le français, et ce serait enrichissant de l’utiliser quand un sujet “neuro” est développé en français. Ca semble archi-évident, mais je suis frappé par l’absence de blogs multilingues sur le web. Donc voici le début d’une expérience: sur ce blog, vous pourrez trouver des postes en plusieurs langues.

Buyology, the book by Martin Lindstrom, got critically reviewed yesterday in the Financial Times. The key paragraph is:

Unfortunately, Lindstrom’s book is more speculation than serious science. Little of it actually reports on his own neuro-research; the rest consists of marketing war stories that are rehashed with speculative spin on unrelated topics such as mirror neurons and neurotransmitters.

The reviewer, Alan Mitchell, makes several points. He first finds the whole fMRI methodology dubious. This is not because a consumer’s brain lights up in regions related to religious feelings in previous studies that buying and praying are related.

Second, he mentions that according to the very researchers who did the studies for Lindstrom, the reported results are not statistically significant.  Finally, Mitchell points to the rhetorical power of brain science, the reference to the “brain” bringing immediately an argument of authority that biases judgment, even in informed persons.

The reviewer concludes by warning that the brash claims of Lindstrom’s neuromarketing can in fact “blind” executives. Ironic I find, for a science so full of visuals.

To put this review in perspective, it is good to know that Alan Mitchell is involved in an academic and business project aiming at putting the consumer at the center of marketing practices. He calls that “VRM“, or vendor relationship management, in a 180 degree twist of the usual CRM.

Alan Mitchell

Alan Mitchell

As I understand it, the basic idea is simply to start with the consumer. When you start thinking marketing from the firm’s side of the buying relationship, you end up sweating on market studies, harassing prospects on the phone, and doing a lot of guess-work about buyer’s intentions. VRM says that it would be much simpler to let consumers voice their preferences, and facilitate their finding a matching offer. This insures to be right on target, it is cost-effective since firms cease to blind-search for customers (they stand up voluntarily), and it is more ethical, as consumers willingly share their private information about their tastes and buying intentions.

It is clearer to me now why Mitchell could be skeptical of the whole neuromarketing thing, even if he reserves for it some soothing words at the end of his review. If one sees marketing as an activity that should empower the consumer, then Lindstrom’s insistence that the consumer is not aware of its own desires must be discomforting. What do you make of a consumer who states that s/he prefers not to smoke, and who actually craves for a cigarette? Or somebody who expresses the wish to eat healthy food, but who would be actually disappointed if served vegetables instead of French fries? It is certainly not easy for a firm to take action based on these mixed signals.

Maybe that neuromarketing could help disentangling explicit from implicit wishes of the consumer, actually making a contribution to the VRM that Mitchell is trying to promote.

Neuromarketing on radio

Following on last post, here is a radio show with Martin Lindstrom (author of Buyology) being interviewed and asked questions by callers: enthusiasts and critics. Interesting.

[Thx to Meghan Dougherty]

Click here: Talk of the Nation, December 9, 2008

Neuromarketing explained

And this is the last leg of the three-steps guide to neuroeconomics, dealing this time with neuromarketing.

It is useful to remark first that the identity of neuromarketing is still unclear: if you take the big-hit “Buy-ology“, neuromarketing seems to be a business venture driven by consulting firms rich enough to run fMRI studies.

But if you check the program of the 2008 Conference of the Society for Neuroeconomics, neuromarketing appears then as an academic field allied to neuroeconomics. They both deal fundamentally with decision-making in economic contexts, with neuromarketing focusing more specially on consumer behavior.

To see how it works, we are lucky enough to have a (fairly) non-technical, bilingual, audio and video presentation on neuromarketing soon available on the web, and in preview on this blog. You’ll see Britney Spears and Andre Agassi, and how their expertise can (or not!) influence your buying decisions.


It was Ale Smidts (director of my lab) presenting in Paris La Sorbonne,  last October. Just click and wait for the presentation to load:

Ale Smidts on expert power

[The paper presented is published in the current issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Dec. 2008)]