This week in Marketing, Jim Powell wrote a rather strongly worded essay on the topic of neuroscience’s impact on marketing. His main point was that we should be skeptical towards the rise of neuroscience in marketing because it necessitates that we acknowledge that human beings are deterministic – that they don’t have the free will to make choices.
As somebody with a bit of a background in neuroscience, I’d like to throw my 2 cents into the discussion.
So, what’s Jim really trying to say?
In a nutshell, Jim is talking about a problem that many people are having with the current trend in neuroscience to reduce complex emotions and mental processes to “simple” biology. The thinking is: thoughts are generated by the mind, the mind is a product of the brain and the brain is a physical system fully reliant on the physical laws of the universe. Still with me?
This applies to marketing and advertising, because it suggests that the processes undergone when somebody is choosing whether to engage with a brand or product are purely biological and deterministic.
Many people don’t like the idea that the human race – complex and mysterious – can be described in purely physical terms. It’s just not sexy. Jim actually goes as for to say that ‘With devastating logic it makes people who were once seen as autonomous sentient beings disappear or become illusionary, our consciousness is, in fact, an illusion’.
All just a misunderstanding…
Here’s where I have my problem with Jim’s argument. It’s now generally regarded as scientific fact that the mind – and all its complexity is a byproduct of the physical brain – and that means that complex mental processes like our ability to choose between products are physically grounded. ‘We are simply obeying the rules of a deterministic universe where free will is absent’, he says. He doesn’t like this at all.
The devil’s in the detail
Jim tells us that proponents of the above statement claim all we need to do is understand how the brain works to be able to place the perfect product or brand in front of the right person at the right time.
However, a deterministic brain doesn’t necessarily lead to the above scenario. The brain is a massively complex system that derives millions and millions of units of input from our senses and receptors across the human body every millisecond. This is what makes every human mind unique – variety.
There isn’t a magic formula to work out what somebody desires
Because of the huge complexity of the brain, we’ll probably never be able to have one simple magic formula that allows us to market perfectly to an individual at every moment.
So why should marketeers embrace the rise of neuro-b*llocks? Because it tells us that the human mind is to some degree deterministic, but that doesn’t mean that choice and free will don’t appear to exist to us. They might well be a complex illusion, but there are so many variables that affect the human mind at any single point that the number of choices people make is virtually endless. Free will exists to us, or at least in a practical sense it does – and that’s an incredible, amazing thing.