Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on the day's biggest business stories

Subscribe to Axios Closer for insights into the day’s business news and trends and why they matter

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sign up for Axios NW Arkansas

Stay up-to-date on the most important and interesting stories affecting NW Arkansas, authored by local reporters

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Market researchers are hooking up test subjects to scientific-grade brain scans, searching for triggers that spark emotional connections and affect behavior.

What's happening: Deploying tools from neuroscience, firms have been plumbing people's minds in hopes of exerting a stronger influence over their decisions.

The big picture: Already, Big Tech is under fire for sneaky techniques known as "attention hacking” to keep people under the spell of apps and social media feeds. "Dark patterns" allow them to shepherd people through choices — like how much personal information to share — in a way that benefits the companies rather than their users.

  • Now, some two dozen market research firms are seeking ways to eke out even more attention for advertisers and product designers, and more effectively drive users to do or buy something.
  • The firms say they aim to know consumers better than they know themselves, which could supercharge this quiet pressure.

Critics warn that the efforts, if successful, would help data-rich companies manipulate consumers.

  • This power imbalance is a product of "surveillance capitalism" — a term coined by academics to describe the drive of companies to profit by collecting as much data as possible about potential buyers.
  • "The people who are able to apply and market these technologies are large brands and corporations," says Meredith Whittaker, co-founder of the AI Now Institute. "This is not an equal-access set of technologies. They're used by some on others."

How it works: Brain tests like electroencephalography (EEG) allow researchers to see how people's brains react, second by second, to experiences like watching a TV ad, scrolling through an app, or popping a redesigned cap on a soda bottle.

  • Electrodes monitor neuron activity in various parts of the brain, cameras watch for eye movements and micro-expressions, and skin sensors pick up on changes in heart rate and mental effort.
  • They're looking for emotional attachment, memory activation and active attention — how they vary throughout an experience and whether they change after a consumer interacts with an ad or a product.
  • "It's the combination of emotion and memory that's really powerful as an indicator of whether this experience right now is going to have an impact on future behavior, which ultimately is what's at interest here," says Bradley Vines, director of neuroscience at Nielsen, a leading market research firm.

Background: This controversial technique took a while to take hold in the marketing world. Only in the last half-decade or so, after Nielsen bought up a firm called NeuroFocus, has consumer neuroscience edged toward the mainstream, says Ming Hsu, a Berkeley marketing professor.

  • The technology’s effectiveness has been debated as long as it has existed — with critics taking aim at the assumptions on which analyses are built — but it’s started to see wider uptake.
  • Nielsen has signed up big clients like Time Warner and New Balance, and startups like Spark Neuro are now pushing into advanced testing methods like functional near-infrared spectroscopy.
  • Facebook, too, has hired neuroscientists for a 2-year-old "marketing science" center in New York City.

For now, advertisers’ influence tactics are mostly opaque, Hsu says, potentially "polluting our minds with excess associations we don't really need or want."

  • Yes, but: Neuroscience could also be deployed to rein in attention hacking, Hsu argues.
  • Tests could reveal the effects of these techniques, he says: "If we can measure that then we can regulate it, like carbon or pollution."

Go deeper: This is my brain on a puppy ad

Go deeper

50 mins ago - World

WHO revises air quality guidelines to reduce deaths from pollution

Smoke from California wildfires over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in August 2021. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The World Health Organization on Wednesday updated air quality guidelines it set roughly 15 years ago, saying that negative health effects from air pollutants can begin at lower levels than it previously thought.

Why it matters: The changes are meant to reduce deaths from pollutants that cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and prematurely kill an estimated 7 million people around the world annually, according to the WHO.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
2 hours ago - Energy & Environment

The road to COP26 gets slightly easier

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The bad diplomatic vibes heading into the critical United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, might be improving slightly.

Catch up fast: Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday pledged to end overseas finance for building new coal-fired power plants and boost support for clean energy in developing nations.

Corporations turn focus to retaining frontline workers

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Companies are narrowing the blue- and white-collar experience as they're forced to adapt to a worker-led market.

Driving the news: Basic office tools and concepts like corporate communications and schedule flexibility are migrating to frontline operations through investments in technology.