Neuroscience and Market Research share an overlapping theoretical interest in understanding human behavior and decision-making. Neuroscience research and history sets a benchmark of validity and methodological excellence that can offer insights to Market Research best practices.

Scientific research investigating how people make decisions shows that there are critical factors that must be met by any market research tool in order to optimally measure behavior.

Based on neuroscience, a successful Market Research method does the following:

  1. Measures both Emotion and Reason in isolation and integration
  2. Allows the natural cognitive process of decision-making to occur in the brain
  3. Combines both qualitative and quantitative data
  4. Provides a testing environment free of social bias
  5. Includes a targeted and representative sample
  6. Utilizes appropriate stimuli for the research question.

Most commonly used Market Research methods, including focus groups, individual interviews, projective techniques, max difference, stated and derived importance, conjoint analysis, and neuroscience ‘device’ approaches only meet some of these neuroscientific criteria. These other methods do not combine qualitative and quantitative data collected in a bias free environment from appropriate samples accessing the natural cognitive stream (the way the brain processes decisions) to measure both the emotion and reason that make up a person’s real decision based on relevant stimuli.


Neuroscience Evaluation of Market Research Methods

Detailed Report
Based on findings from academic Neuroscience and Psychological research, six key areas of methodological excellence by which to evaluate Market Research methods were targeted. Successful understanding of decision making requires the following:
  1. Measuring both Emotion and Reason in isolation and integration.
  2. Allowing for the natural cognitive process of decision-making to occur in the brain.
  3. Combining both qualitative and quantitative data.
  4. Providing a testing environment free of social bias.
  5. Including a targeted and representative sample.
  6. Utilizing appropriate stimuli for the research question.
The analysis found that while some Market Research tools meet some of these neuroscience criteria, they do not
effectively combine all of the criteria and therefore by neuroscience standards are not optimal for gaining a complete understanding of decision-making.

Criteria for Evaluating Market Research Methods

An objective assessment of the tools commonly used in Market Research was conducted using the standards of Neuroscientific research. Given the overlapping theory between Cognitive Neuroscience and Market Research in the understanding of decision-making, the application of the strict, validated, and peer reviewed fundamentals from scientific work was an ideal set of standards from which to evaluate Market Research tools.

The structure of this comparison was based upon the following criteria:

  • The key findings from Neuroscience regarding how the brain makes a decision happen. The two principles that emerged are the concepts that a decision requires input from both Emotion and Reason, and that the brain processes decisions in known and reliable patterns of connection between the two systems.
  • Next consideration, the critical testing factors that allow scientists to collect the most valid and reliable data. This produces two principles related to the need to acquire multiple data types and the importance of the testing environment.
  • Finally, a consideration of the optimal source of the data. This led to the inclusion of two principles regarding the sample size and characteristics, and the stimuli used that initiated the response of interest.
  • Then a systematic examination the most common methods used in Market Research, including Focus groups, Interviews, Projective Techniques, Max Difference, Conjoint Analysis, Stated versus Derived importance, and Neuroscience ‘Device’ tools, evaluating each method’s fit with these objective scientific standards.

I. Emotion + Reason
Decisions and behaviors are the product of both the Emotion and Reason systems in the brain. These Limbic/Emotion and Cortical/Reason systems form an integrated pathway, starting with Emotion, which respond to and evaluate the environment and action options. The brain processes relevant information through the lens of emotion followed by cognition, which together produce our behavior. Both Emotion and Reason are critical components of a decision, in their individual contributions and in integration. It is necessary to measure both the Emotion and Reason contributing to behavior, as well as how the two interact and drive each other. Market Research techniques, such as survey ratings, conjoint analysis, max difference, and device methods do not allow for the understanding of how Emotion and Reason contribute to the outcomes that they measure.

II.Natural Decision Making
The cognitive process of decision-making occurs in the brain in the same way in all people every time. A successful Market Research tool facilitates and triggers this pathway in the respondents in order to capture the most valid insights. Brains process decisions through the integration of Emotion and Reason, with Emotion systems initiating the response and influencing subsequent Reason. Having Emotion come first and Reason follow after putting respondents in a context is a critical distinction of the Brain Surgery tool, making it most consistent with how the brain likes to work. Common methods, such as focus groups and interviews can constrain an individual’s natural cognitive flow and force them to ‘think through’ a response before being allowed to feel. Another critical scientific finding to consider in the measurement of anyone’s behavior is that the brain is proactive.

What this means is that the Emotion Reason Emotion loop is constantly running and updating as new information is provided and internal evaluations change. Allowing this loop to ‘run’ smoothly will help an individual respond fluidly and truthfully, and allow them to ‘reset’ the loop in response to new information, such as a target message. A successful Market Research tool keeps the survey framework simple and consistent to let the Emotion/Reason loop run uninterrupted and without the clutter and ‘noise’ of changing tactics or new question formats to derail ongoing brain processes related to evaluation. Research tools that combine a variety of question formats create extra cognitive load on respondents, which clogs and interrupts the looping and makes comparison across time and question somewhat unreliable.

III. Qual and Quant
An ideal Market Research tool measures the outcome of integrated Emotion and Reason, to access the ‘why’ of how an outcome formed. As discussed above, decisions are processed in consistent patterns in the brain. In order to truly understand a decision, it is important to understand the Emotion and Reason factors that led to this decision. The best way to achieve this understanding is through the collection and integration of both quantitative and qualitative data. Qualitative data is defined from a Neuroscience perspective as information that a respondent “says”, taken from an individual’s own written response. Open-ended qualitative data allow for more free and open responding and novel insight. Most importantly, qualitative data can express the cognitions related to how someone feels. In other words, qualitative data can offer insights into the Reason that comes from our Emotion. Quantitative data, on the other hand, can show us the strength and valence of the Emotion that leads to the Reason. Quantitative data is also excellent for measuring overall outcome information, which can be interpreted within the framework of the qualitative data. Most techniques collect only quantitative OR qualitative data, which limits the depth of understanding and analytic abilities. Measuring only with traditional qualitative techniques, such as an interview, focus group, or projective study, limits the objective interpretation of the data. Measuring only quantitatively does not allow for an understanding of the drivers of the outcomes.

IV. Unbiased Testing Environment
It is critical to create a testing environment free of social bias that supports the uninhibited responding of the respondent. In-person questioning or direction introduces social bias and alters the behavior of respondents who may try to be ‘correct’ to please the experimenter and ‘succeed’ at the task. Researcher interaction also contaminates objective responses to targets due to possible emotional reactions to the interpersonal experience inherent with in-person testing. Respondents may react to the social dynamic in a positive or negative way biasing their evaluations and subsequent responses. Aided testing contexts are also more variable between respondents and introduce another source of possible difference. An ideal Market Research tool controls the testing experience across respondents to be impersonal and free of social pressure and bias to allow for uninhibited responding.

V. Sample
The data collected are wholly related to its source, specifically the respondents in the sample, which must be large enough for statistical analysis, and representative of the population of interest. For some studies there is a targeted group which must be recruited, while other studies attempt to measure responses of a more diverse sample in order to allow for generalization of results to the wider population.

Whichever the goal, subjects must be recruited in size and constitution for the purpose of the ultimate research question and goal of the data insight. Focus groups and interviews may allow for a targeted insight about a specific group of people, but often their smaller sample sizes do not allow for statistical quantitative analysis or valid and reliable extrapolation of the findings outside of the study. Other more quantitative techniques, such as projection, max diff, conjoint analysis, and stated versus derived measures have the potential to be used in large and representative samples, and should be. The expense and more intensive procedures of neuroscience ‘device’ methods often limit large representative samples.

VI. Stimuli
Like the Sample principle, the principle of ‘Stimuli’ directly impacts the quality and appropriateness of the data collected. what respondents react to, talk about, and think about in a study needs to be reflective of the research question and optimally designed to access the insights desired. An ideal Market research tool uses stimuli that are refined enough to inform specific research topics, but also allow for flexibility in responding in order to get unconstrained and unknown insights from respondents. Interview and Focus groups are heavily biased by the questions and delivery of the interviewer and often do not offer controlled enough stimuli for valid comparison or aggregation of findings across individuals. Popular quantitative research, such as conjoint analysis or max diff, is by necessity limited to a pre-determined set of attributes or response options by the researcher and will not allow for spontaneous insight from respondents of new response options.

Assessment of Specific Techniques

I. Focus groups / Interviews
Focus Groups and individual interviews typically involve qualitative data collected in an open-ended manner. This method is useful for real time general feedback on products and ideas such as getting reactions to a commercial. However, although the in-depth and flexible format can capture both Emotion and Reason, Focus Groups are not ideal for understanding the connections between the two and the process of decision-making. Another drawback is that these formats often ask respondents to think and feel in artificial patterns rather than the natural cognitive process that their brain uses. Finally, even the most skilled interviewer can introduce bias into the data collection procedure, in addition to the pressure/polarization common to focus groups, limiting the likelihood of obtaining an uninhibited response.

II. Projective Techniques
Projective Techniques generally involve using stimuli or prompts that encourage respondents to project their underlying motivations, beliefs, attitudes, or feelings onto an ambiguous situation, thus indirectly accessing respondents uninhibited Emotion and Reason. Examples of this technique are word association, sentence completion, story completion, role playing, third person, collage, picture sorting, and bubble drawing. The strength of Projection techniques is the low cognitive demand of the more creative and free tasks in which Reason does not tend to overwhelm and inhibit Emotion, thus allowing for the capture of both.

The testing context of many self-administered Projective Techniques, such as word association or story completion allow for the removal of social bias in the testing environment and a more uninhibited response. Some techniques, however, require researcher interaction, such as role playing, and therefore may not provide uninhibited response data due to social bias and performance demands on the individual. The major limitation of Projection tools used on their own, however, is the resulting qualitative data set which is difficult to analyze, interpret, and turn into actionable insights.

III. Statistical Techniques: max Difference and conjoinT analysis
Max Difference is a discrete choice model asking respondents to choose from sets of targets. This technique is useful to understand absolute preferences and choices among pre-determined sets. It is fairly low in cognitive demand and easy for respondents to perform, thus facilitating natural brain processes.

Without qualitative data, however, it is difficult to understand how/why choices are made and the role of Emotion or Reason driving them. This is a drawback shared by Conjoint Analysis which shows respondents many different contexts that systematically vary on specific attributes. Conjoint analysis can also be a little cognitively demanding, hindering the Emotion/Reason loop, although the respondents are free in this condition to follow the natural cognitive flow as they assess trade-offs.

The biggest difference in these quantitative techniques, especially in contrast to the Brain Surgery tool, is in the source of the stimuli and attributes within the testing framework. The set of information for respondents to evaluate is determined by the researcher, with no additional opportunity to learn from respondents and gain additional insights on factors not pre-determined as part of the study design.

VII. Stated and Derived importantce
Additionally, there is the approach of comparing Stated and Derived Importance. This approach involves the collection of survey data regarding specific attributes (stated importance) as well as more general indicators of product evaluation from which attributes get a derived importance based on a correlation analysis. Although this approach can be done in a testing environment limiting bias, this approach does not pass the other test criteria. From this technique it is not possible to understand the components of the decision output or the role of Emotion and Reason. The respondent may or may not (likely not) process survey questions in the natural cognitive flow that enhances response validity and insight. Finally, Stated and Derived Importance is a quantitative method missing possible depth from qualitative data.

VIII. Neuroscience ‘Device’ Techniques
Finally, there is the approach of using Neuroscience methods, such as EEG, fMRI, and psychophysiology, within the Market Research context. Companies using these scientific research tools often make claims that by using the tools of Neuroscience they measure the unconscious brain activity and know the ‘truth’ behind what someone is thinking. Unfortunately the use of these devices in isolation without also incorporating neuroscience theory and practice into these methods limits their utility outside of the research lab.

While it may seem paradoxical for this critique to negatively evaluate the tools used that are directly related to discovery of the principles discussed, neuroscience devices, like any method, must be used properly for valid insight. Due to the expense and complexity of many neuroscience devices, they are not appropriate for use outside of the lab without experts who best know how to use them and deal with the data that they produce.

Without proper expertise to determine sampling, stimuli, and data analysis, the data sets produced from these devices cannot be interpreted to reflect emotion or reason independently or in relation to each other, despite the natural decision making that may be allowed to occur in some of the research contexts. Furthermore, the device methods rarely have validated predictive algorithms by which to map and understand the enormous and complex data sets that they acquire, in addition to the fact that they are often unaccompanied by qualitative data, making interpretation difficult.

Summary of Evaluation
Based on scientific research investigating how people make decisions, six critical factors were defined that must be met by a research tool in order to optimally measure behavior. To be integrated with modern Neuroscience teaching any successful Market Research method must do the following:

  • Measure both emotion and reason in isolation and integration.
  • Allows the natural cognitive process of decision-making to occur in the brain.
  • Combine both qualitative and quantitative data.
  • Provides a testing environment free of social bias.
  • Includes a targeted and representative sample.
  • Utilizes appropriate stimuli for the research question.

These evaluation criteria are important for Market Researchers and Marketers to consider when building their plans for accessing insights to create optimal success in any marketplace.

The Brain Surgery Method
Brains Surgery’s method was developed based on the strict and valid criteria of Neuroscience. The Brain Surgery method meets these criteria and provides valid insight into real decisions. The survey data produce insights into emotion and reason, both as isolated components and in relation to each other. The predictable and consistent survey structure allows for respondents to make their decisions in a natural flow with low cognitive demand which allows for feelings to emerge. The method includes both qualitative and quantitative data to provide statistical analysis of findings, as well as subjective understanding of why. The anonymous self-directed automated environment is free of social bias and allows the respondent to relax and answer without undo social pressure. The survey collects for larger numbers of sample who have been specifically targeted and recruited to reflect the characteristics of the target population. Finally the ‘stimuli’ are contexts in which respondents reflect on their feelings, rather than reacting to stimuli presented out of context. Together, the Brain Surgery tool offers valid insight for optimal evaluation of decision making based on the lessons of Neuroscience.