Consumer Neuroscience the Nielsen Way

Dr. Michael Smith of Nielsen came on stage at the Cannes Lions to tell us that only 25% of us are living up to our creative potential, which is sort of an odd thing to remind an audience at Cannes. He got on firmer group fast by describing the spread between the idealized, disciplined creative process that we think we go through and the messy reality we struggle with. It’s a process that could benefit from a little research, and that’s where Nielsen comes in.  Their research into the creative process produced five ideas that brands and agencies need to keep in mind:

1. There is a neuroscience of decision making.  We tend to think that decision making occurs in a nice, linear process. We evaluate information and come up with a well-thought-out answer.  Only, we don’t do that at all.  We’re not rational and thoughtful deciders at all. We’re loose cannons who reach snap judgements in fractions of seconds, only to think and rationalize after the fact.

2. Change is bad. Bad! Humans have a lousy track record with change. We may brag about being the most adaptable animal while displaying the kind of change aversion that would make a mule proud.  New ideas are usually welcomed with skepticism and disparagement—and occasionally excommunication. Turns out there’s good reason for this. Our orbitalfrontal cortex and amygdala work in concert to characterize threats. When they encounter something uncharacterizable, it gets lumped in with the threats. Good for avoiding terrifying animals, bad for appreciating new ideas. Creative work needs to be below the threat level yet still recognizably new.

3. Imaginability bias is the client’s challenge. If you can imagine it, you can believe it—it sounds like a motivational poster, but it’s actually a good strategy to win over the sour-faced client. Here’s why: your client has two opposing networks in his brain (well, really, everyone does—not just him). One is the playground of imagination and exploration.  The other is the executive action network which does what executives do: shuts down all the nice, imaginative fun.  Your executive function turns off your imaginative potential (which is a fine description of the modern corporation). When a client comes into a meeting, she’s there to judge work and evaluate its potential—prime territory for her executive action network. You need to make sure your idea is conceivable if you’re going to get through that natural and involuntary gauntlet.

4. Learning how to make brain-friendly creative. Nielsen is using EEG measurement and eye tracking software to optimize creative work.  If it’s done right, we can be open to new connections.  Our hippocampus categorizes incoming information. If it doesn’t find a pattern match, it gets excited and wires new structures together in a fraction of a second. That reset happens faster than traditional research techniques can detect.  However, brain measurement via EEG and eye tracking can measure attention, emotion, and memory, and from that Nielsen creates an neurological effectiveness score. And when we optimize our creative output like that, we can measure consumer connections and human behavior—and ensure our clients reap the reward.

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