Photo by Jason Tuinstra on Unsplash (and designed by Mayra Ruiz-McPherson)

Why You Should Heed Advice from Neuromarketing Enthusiasts With a Grain (or Two) of Salt

A cursory search online for the definition of the word enthusiast results in some of the following descriptions:

→ a person who is highly interested in and involved with a particular activity or subject;

→ a person filled with enthusiasm: such as one who is ardently attached to a cause, object, or pursuit a sports car enthusiast;

→ a person filled with or guided by enthusiasm.

What a wonderful thing it is to have enthusiasm for a given subject, cause, or field! Having enthusiasm speaks to the zest of one’s interest, and helps to explain the spark or impetus driving someone’s curiosity and spirited interest in a chosen activity or subject.

3 Enthusiast Examples

When I think of an enthusiast, I think of people like my younger brother who — in recent years — has become a kind of handyman of sorts. While he’s no professional contractor or master gardener and possesses absolutely zero training or licensure in residential home repair, plumbing, lighting, or landscaping and such, he’s developed a genuine passion for these types of activities over a period of time and has become quite talented and familiar in these arenas, which include some woodworking, casual gardening, and basic, do-it-yourself upgrades.

I also think about a former colleague who’s an avid rubber stamp collector. This dear friend has devoted an entire room in her apartment to all things rubber stamps. Once in a while, she’ll admittedly attend craft shows, stamping classes, or conferences. And at least once or twice a year, she’ll also dedicate time to hand-stamping holiday or birthday cards for loved ones or co-workers.

Some enthusiasts go a bit more hardcore than the two examples shared above. For example, I once knew a woman whose entire career was as a marketing and advertising professional but outside of work, she also happened to be a passionate farm-to-table enthusiast. Her bookshelves were covered in how-to gardening literature and farm-to-fork recipe books, and she devoted much of her personal time to helping her local farmers market. Her farm-to-table enthusiasm, however, went further than most: she ripped up (and out) a once lush and visually *gorgeous* English garden from her back yard to instead establish a mini, organic farm with fenced-in vegetable boxes and compost-inspired contraptions all throughout.

In each of the enthusiastic examples described, which exude their own levels of glorious passion and demonstrated zeal, none of the individuals actually acquired professional certifications or pursued higher education degrees in the fields of farming, landscaping, residential construction, or the arts.

Such cases, then, are typically indicative of wonderful enthusiasts who burn brightly with deep interest and passion for a chosen subject or activity.

Yet …

Despite their varying level of commitment and deep conviction, however, would you hire:

… my younger brother to design all the electric and plumbing for your new home?

… my former colleague to design multiple stationary systems based on rubber-stamped themes for commercial sale?

… the farm-to-fork woman to lead the implementation of organic farming operations across your state or region?

Perhaps each of these individuals could play highly supportive roles towards such endeavors but generally speaking, the likelihood of any of them actually landing critical leadership positions for these scenarios would be, without formal training or supportive higher education to augment their spirited enthusiasm, beyond their grasp.

In lieu of

Now let’s substitute my enthusiastically-themed examples of organic gardens, rubber stamps, and residential construction with the field of marketing and adverting. In doing so, when we speak of their impact(s) on the human mind, we enter a realm often referred to as neuromarketing.

In the case of neuromarketing, which uses neuroscience (brain research) to reveal subconscious consumer decision-making processes, would you be more willing to follow the advice of a neuromarketing enthusiast with high interest and in avid pursuit of all things neuroscience OR that of a trained media psychologist (a) seasoned in all areas of marketing technology and digital media, as well as (b) immersively educated in both human brain and social sciences?

I realize the answer to such a question is subjective and would strongly depend on what the needs and wants were of the person being asked. Commercially speaking, the answer would heavily depend on whether a brand needed or wanted more of an evangelist (an enthusiastic advocate) or a seasoned practitioner with licensure, certifications, and/or degrees).

The challenge with neuromarketing enthusiasts

Cognitive neuroscience, an interdisciplinary matrix drawing upon neurology, psychology, physiology, and biology, is “best understood in the wider world as ‘brain science’” (Goswami, 2004). Neuromarketing, in turn, is a specialized brain science devoted to understanding how the human mind responds to marketing and advertising stimuli.

Having said all that, then, a neuromarketing enthusiast is someone with a passion or strong interest in how our minds correspond to marketing-related activity.

The challenge with neuromarketing enthusiasts, however, is their genuine enthusiasm and strong interest — no matter how vast or well-intended — does not (and cannot) replace the tremendous value of an immersive and specialized academic background in both the neurosciences and in human psychology.

Psychology is, after all, the scientific study of the mind and behavior and encompasses all aspects of the human experience, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). And the crux of scientific study in the rich field of neuroscience is the human nervous system, captained by the brain.

Enthusiasts of these robust, neuro-inspired fields, despite meaning well, possessing prolonged passion, arduous interests, and/or having some broad clout on the subject(s) within their own professional circles, are comparable to CliffsNotes; their knowledge or understanding is rather fragmented and often lacks depth, proper scientific contexts or sources, and at times, even accuracy.

I was recently reminded of this while reading two separate articles, one from 2015 and one from 2019.

Please note I randomly sourced both articles from a recent Google News search using “neuromarketing” as my search term and without initially realizing each article had been authored by senior members of the same UK-based digital agency, one which touts neuromarketing expertise as a key differentiator of their branding services.

Nevertheless, using these two articles from 2015 (written by the agency’s Creative Director) and 2019 (authored by the agency’s CEO) as examples, let’s dive right in:

The 2015 article: “What neuroscience can do for design”

In the 2015 article, the author clings to a popular and cognitive Dual Process Theory (DPT) and claims that “Neuroscience has taught us that most decision-making is automatic, intuitive and instinctive and is made in the System 1 ‘rapid response’ part of our brains.”

Here, however, the reference to the brain’s System 1 is rather inaccurate. Specifically, the author says System 1 is a “part of our brains,” when in fact, System 1 does not at all refer to any explicit location of the brain’s physicality. Instead, System 1 is a label, if you will, used to describe a collection of brain processes characterized as automatic, largely unconscious, and relatively undemanding of computational capacity (Stanovich & West, 2000).

Given the above, it’s no surprise the author makes the same faux pas when referencing System 2 as “the reflective and logical section of the brain.” There is no System 2 section of our brains.

Further, the author goes on to say, “This is why, as consumers, we desire the sleek minimalism of an Apple product or the elegant lines of a Mercedes first, then convince ourselves it’s because of the interface or engineering.” He also adds, “This way of making decisions impacts everything from our choice of partner to our choice of brands, products, and companies. For this reason, designers need to create brands that connect with the intuitive and instinctive System 1 decision-making part of the brain, as well as making sense of System 2.”

While the desire to neatly package the human brain’s decision-making process into a clean-cut and compartmentalized fashion is understandable, tempting, and even highly desirable, the unvarnished truth is there is no one, single way to describe how we make decisions. Yes, there are many theories and scientific studies. And yes, credible evidence does exist, thanks to modern brain technologies and imaging capabilities, in support of various theories and ideas.

But to merely water down our brand choices and product desires to how System 1 and System 2 allegedly interact is a highly misleading statement because the very originators of System 1 and System 2 intended for these labels to help explain their prototypical views of “possible interpretations in patterns of reasoning” (Stanovich & West, 2000, p. 658). A prototype, keep in mind, is a preliminary model; and in this case, one that attempts to illustrate or explain *possible* (ergo, not definitive or proven) reasoning patterns.

The 2019 article: “Neuroscience can explain — and prevent — logo redesign disasters”

Since the author of this 2019 article is a senior member of the same branding agency team, she emphasizes much of the well-intended but misguided System 1 and System 2 information as previously spouted by her fellow employee (and author of the 2015 article).

Moreover, since the 2015 article citing inaccurate information about System 1 and System 2 was authored at least four years beforehand, this leads me to believe that the agency has not since evolved much in terms of their neuroscientific knowledge, and I share this as a broad observation and not an intended dig, but I digress.

The 2019 article’s author next states that according to gestaltism, “the human brain instinctively disassembles logos into constituent parts, and puts them back together” but does not seemingly explain this claim or cite any supporting scientific sources in support of our brain’s “instinctive disassembly of logos” premise.

Additionally, while the author does accurately explain that the word ‘gestalt’ is “a German term interpreted in English as ‘pattern’ or ‘configuration,’” she does not explain in any discernable way how she drew her conclusions about the Mastercard Brand Mark redesign by way of Gestalt psychology, a viable and dynamic movement founded in the early 1920s, which focused on the premise that “the world is a sensible coherent whole, that reality is organized into meaningful parts, and that natural units have their own structure (King et. al., 1994, p. 910).

While Gestalt principles, as they specifically relate to visual form perception, are numerous and have been cited time and again by neuromarketing enthusiasts, experience designers, and the like, as the reasoning for certain design decisions or practices, the author of the 2019 article, unfortunately, failed to make a viable connection between Gestalist doctrine and her cited examples, despite clearly attempting or wanting to do so.

The lessons learned

Based on the above-shared examples, here are the lessons learned I hope you’ll walk away with — especially if you’re someone looking to learn more about credible neuromarketing theories and practices:

  1. Who is the article publisher? In the examples above, The Drum is a marketing-centric industry publication and Digital Arts covers the art of graphic design, neither of which are science-minded publications. While it’s wonderful these two publications, and their audiences, are interested in neuromarketing and neuroscientific topics, such publications do not often perform rigorous vetting of information contained in the articles submitted to them. In these cases, the publication relies on the author’s credibility or alleged area of expertise and simply checks for the usual grammar or word count issues, not the accuracy of scientific claims, references, or explanations.
  2. Who is the author? More important than the publisher is the author of any neuroscientific or neuromarketing article because he or she is composing the information for widespread publishing and content consumption, so it’s important to learn the acquisition of the neuroscientific and neuromarketing aspects of their background to better distinguish between an enthusiast and a practicing academic. For example, the author of the 2015 article has, according to LinkedIn, more than 25 years of design experience, a graphic design degree, and wrote The Drum piece while he was an Executive Creative Director. And the author of the 2019 piece is presently an acclaimed advertising/branding/marketing CEO who, also according to LinkedIn, has a degree with an emphasis in French. Therefore, at least on the immediate surface, it would appear these highly accomplished individuals, by and large, are wonderful neuromarketing and neuroscience enthusiasts! That being the case, however, it’s important for neuromarketing-advice seekers to discern a clear distinction between counsel shared from an enthusiast versus a practicing academic.
  3. What are the scientific sources? Anecdotes aside, when we’re talking about the human brain, it’s imperative to look at the nature of the sources, if any are cited. As in the cases above, neither article cited any scientific sources, thereby weakening the validity of their arguments to some degree. My broad observation, in general, and as demonstrated in both example articles, has been that when neuroscience enthusiasts author neuromarketing columns or dispense neuromarketing advice, they often (a) do not specifically cite science-based articles (from scholarly and peer-reviewed sources); or (b) if they do, their correlations to and/or understandings of the science as it applies to marketing topics or consumer-based purchasing decisions tend to be inaccurate — an unfortunate outcome.
  4. Where are the ethics? When one is talking about the most robust and sophisticated organ of our human bodies, aka our brains, the subject of ethics is formidably inevitable and, in my opinion, absolutely required. This fact is even further underscored when one is attempting to pair brain science with commercially-driven activities, such as marketing and advertising, which are not medical or health-related but more monetary in their nature. Therefore, when you’re reading any neuromarketing article and notice there is no mention of ethics of any kind, it’s generally a broad indicator that the content has more than likely been authored by a neuromarketing or neuroscience enthusiast rather than a practicing academic.

The last word

For those who believe in the validity of science, and for those who seek to further their neuroscientific knowledge as it relates to neuromarketing, it’s important — as demonstrated throughout this piece — to distinguish counsel from a well-intended neuroscience enthusiast from the scholarly and seasoned guidance a trained media psychologist can provide.

In terms of time, money, and improved clarity, understanding the difference between the two types of advice is critically vital; the depth and breadth of neuroscientific understanding offered by a trained neuromarketer or media psychologist can debunk myths, avoid the hurdles of inaccuracies, and heighten knowledge in far more relevant and meaningful ways.

References

Bell, S. (2015, January 29). What neuroscience can do for design. The Drum. https://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2015/01/29/what-neuroscience-can-do-design.

Bullen, V. (2019, September 4). Neuroscience can explain — and prevent — logo redesign disasters. Digital Arts from IDG. https://www.digitalartsonline.co.uk/news/graphic-design/neuroscience-can-explain-prevent-logo-redesign-disasters.

Chandra, S. (2019, July 15). Gestalt Principles — Learn how to influence perception. Medium. https://medium.com/ringcentral-ux/gestalt-principles-learn-how-to-influence-perception-83112932d0bc.

Goswami, U. (2004). Neuroscience, education and special education. British Journal of Special Education, 31(4), 175–183.

King, D.B, Wertheimer, M., Keller, H., & Crochetiere, K. (1994). The legacy of Max Wertheimer and Gestalt psychology. Social Research, 907–935.

Nueromarketing Science and Business Association (NMSBA) code of ethics. (n.d.). NMBSA Code of Ethics. https://www.nmsba.com/buying-neuromarketing/code-of-ethics.

Stanovich, K. E., & West, R. F. (2000). Individual differences in reasoning: Implications for the rationality debate? Behavioral and brain sciences, 23(5), 645–665.

Thanks for reading!

I write about human-technology interaction, mediated technologies, cyberpsychology, positive media psychology, narrative psychology, social psychology, brand psychology, transmedia storytelling, neuro design, behavior design, and so much more.

And once in a very blue moon, I’ll also creatively write about completely random stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with my profession :)

Mayra Ruiz-McPherson, MA, MFA
left 🧠: Media Psychologist • Cyberpsychologist • Brand Psychologist
right 🧠: Neurodesigner • Visual Artist • Creative Writer

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media psychologist • neuroscience scholar • philosophy curious • tech ethicist • visual artist 🎨 designer • incurable bibliophile • #amwriting ✍️🗒️✏️