Interest rates up? Listen to Bowie!

Winter is coming.  The clocks have changed, we’ve had the trick-or-treat nonsense and the fireworks have arrived. So, according to psychologists, it’s also now time to refresh our iPhone playlists and seek a little musical nostalgia!    Music has an effect on us, marketers have long known this.  Slow relaxing music in a store makes us linger longer and increases our average spend, while fast loud sounds keep the in-store congestion moving – very handy as the dreaded Christmas rapidly approaches.  But time of year also impacts on our musical preferences themselves.

Researchers have found seasonal differences in our musical tastes and they are all linked to the corresponding changes in the environment.  Specifically, analysis of Billboard charts reveals that as the harsh winter environment sets in, music-lovers begin to favour nostalgia tracks and the comforting feel of ballads, love songs and relaxing classics.  Dance music is out, at least until the spring!

Interestingly, it’s not just the weather that causes us to revise our playlists.  The social and economic environment has an equally powerful effect on our music preferences – a downturn, austerity measures and an interest rate hike can all skew our playlists in a winter-like manner.   Mmmmnnn…. posting this on a day when the Bank of England did the latter, I predict this is a very good night for Bowie downloads.

Neuroscience meets Pearl & Dean

Some of us of a certain age will forever equate a night at the cinema with the rather 70s melodramatic riff that heralded the start of the between-movies (yes, we always had two features in those days!) commercials distributed and packaged by Pearl and Dean, the greatest name in movie advertising since 1953.

It was as much a part of going the the cinema as the childish bang of stamped-on Kia-ora orange cartons or hurling popcorn at the audience members seated down in the stalls (under the cover of darkness, obviously!).  The company is still around, of course, and that digitally-remastered theme evokes a sense of nostalgia every time I hear it – even though there is now often only one film to watch, the ticket prices make a premier league football game seem better value, you can no longer smoke, and you need a massive mortgage to buy popcorn for two.  There’s just something about the atmosphere in a darkened cinema, though, that evokes a whole series of emotional responses across the audience, don’t you think?

Cinema-going is a shared emotional experience.  Audiences laugh together, cry together, jump out of their skins together, and generally respond in very similar ways (not universally of course, while everyone is crying at the end of a good weepy, I’m often the one snoring!).  This apparent emotional contagion is something interesting to study in it’s own right, but it may indirectly also hold a clue as to a better way of conducting neuromarketing research and, crucially, what measures might more accurately predict the emotional responses of consumers.

A recent study by Barnett and Cerf set out to explore the neuroscience behind box office success.  Specifically, they showed some 58 movie-goers a series of 13 trailers for new theatrical releases, each participant being wired with portable EEG equipment in order to accurately measure activity levels in the brain.  The aim of the study was quite simple: to identify particular neurological responses to a trailer that would predict box office sales for the movie itself.  Typical piece of neuromarketing research in many respects, except the really novel thing about this study was the actual metric used by Barnett and Cerf.

Rather than just looking for specific patterns of neural activity, the researchers looked for simultaneous matches in activity across the 58 audience members; something neuroscientists refer to as cross-brain correlations (CBCs).  Put another way, they were looking for trailers that produced very very similar patterns in brain activity in the audience members all at the same time. The results were really good, even controlling for other possible physiological and psychological causes of the CBCs.  The greater the degree of CBC across the audience watching a trailer, the higher the box office sales for the movie on its release.  Pretty impressive!  The authors also went on to propose a series of content analysis techniques that could be used to identify the particular aspects of the trailer content most likely to generate a strong CBC – something that could, theoretically at least, be used to actual craft a box office success from scratch.

Personally, I think this is potentially of more value to Pearl and Dean than it is to a Sony Pictures or a Disney.  We normally conduct neuromarketing studies on an individual basis, showing a series of consumers advertising stimuli and looking to identify a particular stimulus (or aspect of it) that produces an already-identified desired neurological response.  But this study by Barnett and Cerf – our very own Pearl and Dean of neuroscience, of you like – suggests that we should actually be conducting this research on a series of consumers in parallel and seeking to measure common neurological responses via CBCs.  In other words, the more an ad evokes a CBS across the audience, the greater the sales of the advertised product/service we would expect.

I like this idea!  I love movies, I love the cinema, and this is a context in which a surprisingly well-controlled experiment could actually be conducted.  After all, in a cinema, we can be sure that the audience watching our commercials is experiencing the same levels of lighting, ambient temperature, volume, and so on.

An interesting and exciting prospect – wonder if I could persuade a friendly advertising agency and cinema chain to sponsor this experiment?  (hint, hint!)   In the meantime, if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to Pear and Dean‘s, do please enjoy that wonderfully iconic (if rather naff!) music for yourselves.

Doctor Jodie and the Whovians

It’s been an interesting week as a life-long Doctor Who fan.  The show started the year I was born (the week JFK was assassinated, in fact) and I have stuck with it throughout its audience peaks and troughs.  The announcement on Sunday of the casting of a new Doctor kept me preoccupied all weekend.

Hands up, I was one of those Whovians hoping they’d cast a female lead, the show was in need of a refresh again.  And what casting!  Not only a woman, but one of my all-time favourite actresses too.  They manages to get Jodie Whittaker, for goodness sake!!!  Perfect.  How did they manage that?!?  I am one happy Whovian this week.

Ah yes, then there’s been the audience and press reaction to all this… a dimension to be expected, alas, and something intriguing the psychologist in me more than anything else.  Casting a female lead has brought out the very best and the very worst in fans and journalists, the show’s end consumers if you like.  Personally, I feel the change in gender – established in Who mythology long ago – can only be a positive thing.  As many commentators have observed, little girls in the playground can now be the Doctor, not the assistant, and this may well also have a positive impact on encouraging interest in science too – again, one of the intended aims of Doctor Who way back at its inception in 1963.  I shall for the sake of this post ignore the negative comments, some of which have been quite offensive, except to say that the misogynists threatening to boycott the show are welcome to do so.  I’m sure a whole new generation of fans will be only too willing to take their place.

And really, that’s the whole point of all this…  It’s about ratings.  It’s about increasing audience share.  It’s about boosting merchandise sales.  However we look at the past few days, this has been if nothing else very clever marketing on the part of the BBC.  The level of interest and press coverage has been huge.  The two-minute “reveal” video previewed on BBC1 on Sunday, ironically after the Men’s Singles Final at Wimbledon, has to date been viewed well over nine million times from the BBC’s Facebook page alone – that’s double the average TV audience figures for actual broadcast episodes over this past year!  Sales of DVDs and downloads of TV series and movies starring Jodie  have also shown a marked increase according to retailers. And let us not forget other aspects of the timing of the announcement here…  It comes in the same week that the Advertising Standards Authority announced new guidelines on the portrayal of gender roles in the media and, of course, there’s that small matter of the parallel reveal of BBC salaries and its apparent gender disparity – at least our new Doctor now knows how much Peter Capaldi was being paid, if nothing else.  Negotiate a good deal, Jodie!

They say no publicity is bad publicity and I’ve no doubt that this will definitely prove the case here.  The level of attention shows no sign of waining. Traffic through the main social media channels remains unprecedented in Doctor Who terms and, this very evening, the BBC cleverly issued a formal response to the complaints they have apparently received.  I say “cleverly” because it really just recycles quotes from the production team on Sunday about the benefits of this casting decision for the future of the programme.  Even those nude pictures in the tabloids were kind of predictable – didn’t we have some similar coverage when David Tennant’s casting was announced?  He went on to become the most successful Doctor since the show’s reboot.

What will the outcome be?  Well, we have to wait a full year for the first full Jodie Whittaker season to air, time enough to build audience anticipation (and subsequent viewing figures) in a way that worked so well for past castings such as Peter Davison, Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston.  Tease the audience with something new and exciting, then make them wait – a lovely marketing ploy!   The knock-on merchandise sales are potentially huge too, a female Doctor opens up so many new marketing opportunities from clothing (still have my Tom Baker scarf) to children’s toys (doll sales peaked with David Tennant, of course, being bought largely by adults).  So, from a BBC point of view, they are on to a sure-fire winner here.  Well done, Auntie.

And as a fan…?  I’m on to a winner too, me thinks.  A great show refreshed in a wonderfully innovative way – and (did I mention this earlier?) it stars Jodie Whittaker, folks!  Wow!!!   Who could ask for more…   As the Fourth Doctor once said in his debut story, “There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes”


Why your brain prefers Prezi

Tomorrow, I have another random collection of meetings to attend.  If all goes true to form, I will end the day suffering from acute death-by-PowerPoint.  There’s just something about having to sit through slide after slide after slide that makes you want to leave your brain in a bucket when entering the room and pick it up again on the way out.  But why does Mickeysoft’s ubiquitous tool have such an effect on us?

The answer may lie in neuroscience.  According to a study by Sam Moulton and his colleagues at Harvard, the main reason is probably that PowerPoint just isn’t very brain-friendly.  In their rather elegantly-simple experiments, Moulton et al. found that PowerPoint was no more aesthetically pleasing than a speaker simply talking without any visual aids, but the more dynamic Prezi package which rated significantly higher.  Why?  Well, on the basis of what we know about the neuropsychology of perception, the authors argue that whereas fairly static media such as PowerPoint do manage to stimulate the ventral visual system (involved in processing colour, form, etc.), the zooming and panning involved in a Prezi presentation also stimulates the dorsal visual system (which processes spatial information).  Achieve both at once as Prezi does and you are on to a winner in terms of both engaging the audience and achieving a pleasing neurological response.

The study also had some interesting takeaways in terms of the use of animation.  The odd bit of this can make a presentation a little more interesting, but that can quickly become very irritating when overdone.  This is because of the ventral-only stimulation associated with packages such as PowerPoint and Keynote.  Prezi tends not to evoke such a reaction, however, because the dorsal stimulation is neurologically and aesthetically pleasing.

Most interestingly, perhaps, this dual-stimulation also has a positive impact on the speaker’s audience reception.  Moulton and his colleagues didn’t find any difference in how well the content of a presentation was understood or remembered, but they did find that audience members rated the presenter as a more credible and likeable message source.  And, as we know from the literature on marketing communications, the messenger plays a huge role in whether a message resonates with the recipient and stimulates a sale.

So, next time you have a big presentation to do, especially if it’s for a job interview or a sales pitch, remember to go ventral and dorsal simultaneously if you want to win!

Game of Thrones on the couch

Last summer, I had the pleasure of visiting Iceland for the first time.  Stunning landscape, could almost be an exotic alien planet.  Being me, I did the whole geeky thing of taking in the Game of Thrones tour, despite having never seen an episode.  An amazing day out that made me pay more attention to the show itself.  Didn’t take me long to figure out that they are an odd lot across the Seven Kingdoms…

Quite how odd all these pivotal characters are has been nicely analysed by the delightfully-named Dr Kirk Honda, a psychotherapist.  Joffrey Baratheon displays all the signs of having a conduct disorder, for instance, while Ramsay Bolton is clearly a sexual sadist.  Sandor Clegane appears to be suffering from PTSD (hardly surprising, given some of the plots!) and poor old Theon Greyjoy has Stockholm Syndrome (behavioural traits of an abused spouse).  And as for the lovely Cersei Lannister… well, she’s just a good old-fashioned psychopath, apparently.

Iceland also has the only Penis Museum i’ve ever seen, complete with equally bizarre logo….   We may need Freud himself to analyse that one, me thinks!

Stay healthy and smart – eat chocolate!

Ok, I love chocolate, so no danger of an unbiased post here!  Like most people, I’m prone to the confirmation bias – if I like something, I pay more attention to the good news at the expense of the bad.  On that basis, leaving aside concerns about obesity and the like, take what follows with a pinch of cocoa…  Evidence is mixed in terms of whether chocolate is good for you or bad for you, we all know that, but let’s focus on the former for once.


Neuroscientists have found that naturally-occurring substances in chocolate, known as flavanols, enhance cognitive ability.  Specifically, consumer chocolate products high in these flavanols have a positive effect on mental skills such as attention, working memory and speed of information-processing, the latter potentially also helping us to make quicker-and-better decisions.

It’s not clear what the exact origins of the effect are here.  Some researchers suggest flavanols have a direct impact on brain functioning while others believe the cognitive improvements involved are simply a side-effect of cardiac and circulatory benefits that impact in turn upon the brain stem.  Whatever the underlying cause, however, I for one welcome the idea that eating regular amounts of chocolate makes our brains smarter and more efficient.  Moreover, provided the rest of a person’s diet is ok and they aren’t overweight, it’s us 40-65-year-olds who will experience the most significant gains.

For lovers of dark chocolate such as myself, the news just gets even better!  The darker the chocolate, the higher the flavanol levels and, in turn, the greater the cognitive enhancement.  Specifically, dark chocolate contains the most flavanols, bringing the most significant improvements in cognitive activity.  Milk chocolate is less effective due to the lower flavanol content involved.  Sadly, white chocolate bars often contain no flavanols at all, alas.

So, all of this is welcome news for lovers of  Lindt Excellence (90% cocoa!!!) such as me… but it’s really bad news for the poor old Milky Bar Kid!

Business-class pricing in Asda?

There’s something about space that we see as valuable.  We happily pay more for business class or premium economy when taking a flight, for instance, and there is just something about the way designer stores make very inefficient use of display space that seems to make that hiked-up price-tag seem much more justifiable.  But how much of a contribution to pricing can space make?

Turns out that the answer to that question is more than we think.  A study by Sevilla & Townsend manipulated the space between a whole range of different products, both high and low in involvement.  Displaying regular items even on a supermarket shelf with a bigger gap between them than usual increased the amount consumers were willing to pay for them.  Why?  Products displayed in a more spacious way are perceived as being more aesthetically pleasing to consumers, which in turn translates into an increase in the price they are willing to accept.  Of course, the qualifier is always perceived value, no one is willing to be blatantly ripped off.

Nevertheless, there are lessons here for stores where products are crowded onto the shelf in very unappealing way.  Spread them out a little more to make the shopping experience a little more pleasant and it could yield dividends – you’ll be able to stock less products, of course, but you’ll probably sell more of what you do stock and be able to charge more.  Trick now is going to be recalculating those long-established footage-yield ratios!

Decoy marketing and autism

It’s an old ploy…  A cup of coffee can seem expensive at £3 in comparison to a £2 option, but add a £5 cup to the offer then £3  suddenly seems more reasonable.  Similarly, offer a free trip to Paris or Rome, same hotels, sightseeing and a free breakfast, chances are the split will be 50-50 in terms of destination.  Add Rome without a free breakfast, though, and Rome-with-breakfast now wins over Paris!

Behavioural economists sometimes refer to this as an example of “relativity”, our tendency to be distracted by an undesirable option.  More commonly, it’s referred to as “decoy marketing” – the presence of the third option existing largely to nudge the customer toward the choice we’d prefer them to make.  Whatever we label this as, however, it’s an example of System I (or fast) thinking in operation.  Some form of contextual stimulus (a more expensive coffee, lack of a breakfast) disrupts the normal rational decision-making process (System 2, or slow thinking) and we make a quick and at times inefficient choice.

While we are all vulnerable to this form of marketing, a new study by George Farmer and his colleagues suggests that there are certain population groups with a higher degree of immunity to such ploys.  Those of us with an Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC), for instance, are well-known for paying additional attention to detail, especially numerical details such as price.  In an interesting series of experiments, Farmer et al found that ASC participants continue to make far more consistent and extended decisions when faced with decoy marketing offers than control participants without ASC.

The study is important in two respects.  Firstly, it enhances our understanding of ASC cognition and the extent to which System 2 decision-making tends to prevail to a far greater extent.  More broadly, however, given that characteristics of ASC can be found across the general population to varying degrees, these findings perhaps offer a valuable clue as to why individual differences in susceptibility to decoy marketing are so often observed in consumer psychology studies.

Impulse buying – is it a “man thing”?

menSex differences in impulse buying are a muddy area.  Stereotypically, it’s women who are often portrayed as most prone to maxing the credit card by getting carried away in the mall, men supposedly being the ones who watch (often in despair) and at times challenge the necessity of yet another pair of shoes.  That’s a cliche, of course, and probably applies to a tiny minority of shoppers.


The reality, of course, is that which sex indulges the most depends on how you measure it.  If we mean frequency with which impulse buying occurs, then a number of studies have shown that women indeed indulge in impulse buying far more often than men.  On the other hand, if we go by amount spent rather than how often, most studies show a significant sex difference in the opposite direction – when men do shop on impulse, the purchases made can be far more extravagant with an average spend three times higher.

Impulse buying occurs when we switch from extended elaborative decision-making and make an almost instinctive purchase on the basis of far less information – perhaps even no information at all.  It’s a switch in the degree of cognitive activity, in other words, our smart brains processing less information in order to conserve capacity within a finite computer system.  So, any stimulus that reduces cognitive reflection will, logically enough, make us more prone to impulse buying.

A new study by Gideon Nave and his colleagues adds to our understanding of some of the biological markers of impulsivity. Specifically, this particular paper focuses on the role of testosterone in men.  In a study of some 243 men, it was found that administering additional testosterone significantly impaired performance on a range of cognitive reflection tasks, even when controlling for factors such as task skills, motivation and around 14 specific hormones.  The message: testosterone increases reduce deliberative information-processing, resulting in an increased reliance on “quick-and-dirty” low-effort decision-making.

One implication of this might, at face value, seem to be that men should be more vulnerable to impulse buying than women, especially in situations where factors are stimulating an increase in testosterone levels.  As I said earlier, this is a bit of a minefield because whether the prediction holds or not depends largely on how you define and measure the behaviour.  Having said that, if we ignore the issues of frequency and spend-level, there is at least some indirect supporting evidence in terms of the actual product categories purchased.  Male impulse buying is very much skewed towards sportswear/equipment, electronics products, tools and so on.  Even in fashion, the bias remains toward casual sportswear and, in particular, trainers – who said it’s the women buying the shoes?!?  Men take this specific category of impulse buying to often far more ridiculous extremes!

So, where does this leave us?  Not much further forward is probably the most honest answer.  There are a vast number of variables involved in the lead up to an impulse buying episode, so it’s impossible to generalise in any meaningful way on the basis of one more study of a specific physiological factor.  Nonetheless, this work by Gideon and his colleagues is important in that it sheds a little more light on impulsivity among men and the particular circumstances in which they might be more vulnerable to getting carried away with the old credit card.  Be very interesting to build on this with more situationally-specific research – perhaps an experiment in an environment where testosterone levels naturally rise, such as at a major sporting event.

In the meantime, if you’re planning on going to a football game this coming weekend, leave the wallet at home guys or you might just spend more than you intended in the bar and club shop!

It’s official – pet owners are different

A lot of claims are made about the true value of owning a pet.  They supposedly lead to an improvement in health, for instance, and help us to live longer.  It’s also often claimed that pets make us happier, more compassionate and even wealthier.  So, all good news for me, then!

Better still… dogs sometimes come out better than cats in this regard, though it’s always possible to cite a string of pro-cat papers as a counterpoint.  And that’s the problem with such research, really.  Even if someone with a dog is happier and healthier, most research is correlational and there are lots of possible explanations – maybe being wealthy makes you happy and better able to afford a dog, for instance.

One major study, discussed by Hal Herzog, found that pet owners are different, but the difference is largely demographic.  White married women who own their own homes are the most likely to own a pet, whereas no real health-related benefits can be directly attributed to that.  The sub-profiles make interesting reading, especially the differences between dog and cat owners.

One physical benefit does leap out, though.  Dog owners have a better body-mass index (BMI), associated with a range of weight-related characteristics, so the theoretical door remains open as to at least the indirect health benefits of dog ownership.  The same cannot be said for the poor old pussy cat, alas!