Can brainscans beat surveys?

“Brain researchers estimate that your unconscious database outweighs the conscious on an order exceeding ten million to one.  This database is the source of your hidden, natural genius.  In other words, a part of you is much smarter than you are.  The wise people regularly consult that smarter part.”  – Michael J. Gelb

In recent experiments at UCLA, measurements of unconscious brain activity where better predictors of behaviour than asking the subjects directly: brain scans were more predictive of future purchase behaviour than survey questions.  In the experiment, subjects were exposed to public service messages (advertisements) encouraging them to use sunscreen.  Brain scans measuring activity in one part of the prefrontal cortex provided better correlation with later behaviour than typical market research questions, indicating that subjects’ unconscious brains knew better than their conscious counterparts the likely behavioural reaction to the message.  This is the part of the brain associated with self-reflection – where we think about the things we like and dislike.

Previous posts have discussed how much we really know about our own desires, and this research is further confirmation that much of what drives our choices may be hidden from our conscious mind (and therefore hidden from direct questioning).  We cannot assume that consumers always have the answer, even if asked the right question.


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2 thoughts on “Can brainscans beat surveys?

  1. Debra

    It’s not what they SAY that matters – it’s how we interpret what they say. The “news” that people are poor predictors of their future behaviour is not new at all – we’ve known that for 20 years or more. Yet we persist in asking people “how likely are you to…”, presumably because we’ve always asked that in the past.

    The suggestion that we need brainscans to tell us what they will do next is limiting – it creates a world of haves and have nots – brands that can afford the luxury of technology and those who can’t – where in reality, what people CAN do is give us enough clues to future behaviour, that, if decoded sensitively and intelligently, DO predict future behaviour, yes, from answers to the right questons.

    Don’t ditch the questions just because you either don’t ask the right ones, or don’t know how to interpret the answers!

    1. admin


      Thanks for your comments and feedback! I agree with much of what you say – I also do not believe that brain scans are the answer for research. However, although the answer is partly about asking smarter questions, which are more relevant, more context specific, I believe that researchers need to move beyond questions to making greater use of observation and listening to respondents in less formal and structured ways, to get to the real truth of their behaviours.

      Thanks again,


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