A few individual brains may predict the behaviors of larger populations

Assistant professor Elliot BerkmanEUGENE, Ore. -- (May 3, 2012) -- Brain scans of a few people were more telling about the actual responsiveness of larger populations than what was expected through conventional verbal reports in a new study that could affect political advertising, commercial market research and public health campaigns.

The study by researchers at the University of Michigan, University of Oregon and the University of California, Los Angeles, involved smokers who want to kick the habit and their willingness to act after viewing three different advertising campaigns aimed at smokers.

The study is online ahead of regular publication in Psychological Science. Researchers found that what people reported in focus groups can be different than what their brain scans indicated.

Emily Falk"Brain responses to ads forecasted the ads' success when other predictors failed," said lead author Emily Falk, director of the Communication Neuroscience Lab and member of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. "Our findings could help design better health campaigns. This is a key step in reducing the number of smokers and reducing deaths from cancer, heart disease and other smoking-related illnesses."

Co-authors of the study were Elliot T. Berkman, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, and Matthew Lieberman of UCLA. The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health supported the work. Falk and Berkman were both doctoral students together at UCLA and continue to collaborate.

For the study, researchers recruited 31 heavy smokers in Los Angeles who had a strong desire to quit and used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine their neural responses to three proposed, but not-yet aired anti-smoking ad campaigns. All the ads urged viewers to call the National Cancer Institute's tobacco quit line (1-800-QUIT-NOW).  

Participants also responded per a traditional focus-group-type series of questions and rated the effectiveness of ads they had just viewed. The brain scans were then compared to the responses.

When asked what they thought of the ads, participants rated Campaign B the highest, followed by Campaign A and then Campaign C. Industry experts familiar with the campaigns also disliked Campaign C. The three campaigns used very different strategies. Raters found Campaign C annoying and guessed that it would be ineffective. By contrast, Campaigns A and B resonated, but, in the end, were less effective in actually driving calls to the quit-smoking line.

The brain scans, however, showed a completely different order. Campaign C elicited the strongest response. The scans focused on the medial pre-frontal cortex, an area previously linked to positive responses to persuasive messages.

At the larger population level, each ad campaign led to increases in phone calls to the quit-smoking line. The increases ranged from 2.8 to 32 times higher than the control month, when no campaigns aired. Campaign C had the highest increases, followed by Campaign B and Campaign A -- the opposite of the participants’ guesses but the same as their brain scans showed.

"It seems that the brain is picking up on important features of these ads, but we're not sure what these features are yet," Falk says. "We're doing follow up studies now to translate what the brain is telling us about how to design better messages."

Brain-scanning to date has primarily been used to locate regions of the brain that become active under various conditions. "We know, for instance, where persuasion registers in the brain," said the UO's Berkman, who directs the psychology department's Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab. "But we didn't know whether having that information told us anything new about how people would actually behave. From a research perspective, I think our finding is exciting because it provides us with a different use of neuroimaging for neuroscience in general. We can use these neural measures not just as a brain-mapping tool, but as a tool to predict outcomes in the world."

The findings might also help produce more effective political campaign ads, and provide a neural roadmap to why some videos, fashions, behaviors, and ideas go viral, moving from one person to many thousands of others via social media.

About the University of Oregon
The University of Oregon is among the 108 institutions chosen from 4,633 U.S. universities for top-tier designation of "Very High Research Activity" in the 2010 Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The UO also is one of two Pacific Northwest members of the Association of American Universities.

About the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research
Established in 1949, it is the world's largest academic social science survey and research organization, and a world leader in developing and applying social science methodology, and in educating researchers and students from around the world. ISR conducts some of the most widely cited studies in the nation.

Media Contacts: Jim Barlow, director of science and research communications, 541-346-3481, jebarlow@uoregon.edu , or Diane Swanbrow, University of Michigan ISR, 734-647-9069, swanbrow@umich.edu

Sources: Elliot Berkman, UO assistant professor of psychology, 541-346-4909, berkman@uoregon.edu , and Emily Falk, assistant professor, University of Michigan, 734-647-9539, ebfalk@umich.edu

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