Is there a future for you in neuromarketing? Don't count on it just yet, even if you trust the nascent science of using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to uncover, perhaps even influence, how consumers choose among shampoos, tortilla chips, or hedge funds.

Neuromarketing made a national news splash in 2003, when Read Montague of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, used functional MRI (fMRI) technology to explain a famous Coke-Pepsi conundrum: The two sodas are very similar in chemical composition and there's little difference in taste, yet Coke maintains its market dominance. Montague and colleagues found that, both in blind taste tests and in fMRI scans of a brain region associated with taste, subjects were evenly divided in their preference for the two brands. But when Montague's subjects knew they were drinking Coke, brain centers linked to emotion and cognitive control were disproportionately stimulated--which suggested that the powerful cultural wallop of the Coke brand can override the taste buds.

Business was intrigued, and it looked at the time as if neuromarketing might become a job engine for Ph.D.s and MBAs able to close the intellectual gap between brain science and market research. Neuroeconomics, the parent discipline that explores links between the brain and economic behavior, seemed poised to make a triumphant leap from academe to Madison Avenue.

A family of psychologists

Four years later, it's still poised. Jordan Knight, a junior at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (and also, adventitiously, a champion pole-vaulter on the university's track team), says he's determined to pursue graduate study and a career track in the neuromarketing field. He's a business major but hails from a family of psychologists. His background left him frustrated with his first organization-and-management class at Emory: "I found business professors were dumbfounded to have someone ask about psychology."


Brian Knutson (Credit: Christina Gatti)


Jordan Knight (Credit/source: Jordan Knight)

Knight responded by enrolling in neuroscience courses and working with Clinton D. Kilts, a psychopharmacologist at Emory School of Medicine's psychiatry department. Kilts, who specializes in addiction studies and bipolar disorder but also maintains an interest in neuromarketing, confirms Knight's experience. "I remember talking to people at the business school," he says, "and being astonished when they'd reach some predetermined conclusion about how decisions are made and then support it by backfilling it with data." Why not use fMRI scans as a way to support or disprove business hunches about how consumers behave? Knight's experience in scoping out graduate programs, however, has persuaded him that the idea hasn't quite taken off. "It's hard to find a program about business and neuroscience; they flat-out don't exist," he says. "The field doesn't really exist yet," Kilts agrees. "We're pasting it together."

Not that there hasn't been progress in research. A recent study at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, led by Brian Knutson and published in Neuron, monitored subjects' brain activity as they shopped online and bought a series of products worth up to $80. Attraction to a product strongly correlated with activity in the nucleus accumbens, which seems to mediate the expectation of pleasure. Toohigh prices, on the other hand, stimulated the insula, which anticipates painful stimuli, and quieted the mesial prefrontal cortex, a phenomenon linked to disappointment when a hoped-for reward fails to materialize. MRI readings of these regions predicted whether the subject rejected or bought a product. This is the first time researchers have been able to connect brain activity with a real-life consumer decision.


Scott Rick (Credit/source: Scott Rick)

Ambivalent about manipulating people

Scott Rick, a co-author of this study and a graduate student in the Social and Decision Sciences Department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was an economics major as an undergraduate. But he revels in neuromarketing's interdisciplinary links between neurophysiology and economics. "This field attracts people who are uninterested in boundaries," Rick says. Yet there is one boundary Rick is not eager to cross: "I'm ambivalent about teaming up with companies to help manipulate people," he says. Instead, he would like an academic career at a business school, but he hasn't found such jobs plentiful. He is choosing at the moment between postdoc offers at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and the California Institute of Technology, which has a cadre of graduate faculty members interested in the field.

George Loewenstein, Rick's adviser, concedes that so far there's really no clear career trajectory for an aspiring neuromarketer. He's not wholly unhappy about that. "If a graduate student in neuroeconomics ended up in industry, that would be a disappointment," Loewenstein says. "The reality is that when you do marketing, you are a slave to economic interests, to people who want to promote certain goods and services."

That gulf in attitudes between academe and Madison Avenue, proverbially wide, still seems to be restraining neuromarketing from making its widely anticipated jump from the laboratory to the marketing department.

Mark Caldwell is the author of several books and teaches at Fordham University.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700071

10.1126/science.caredit.a0700071