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."

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