In the latest issue of Science a group of researchers at University of Amsterdam report two psychological studies testing how we reach a decision as to what product to buy. Here’s a short description of the first test from Greg Miller’s accompanying news piece:
To test the idea, Dijksterhuis and colleagues asked volunteers to read brief descriptions of four hypothetical cars and pick the one they’d like to buy after mulling it over for 4 minutes. The researchers made the decision far simpler than it is in real life by limiting the descriptions to just four attributes such as good gas mileage or poor legroom. One of the cars had more plusses than the others, and most participants chose this car. But when the researchers made the decision more complex by listing 12 attributes for each car, people identified the best car only about 25% of the time–no better than chance. The real surprise came when the researchers distracted the participants with anagram puzzles for 4 minutes before asking for their choices. More than half picked the best car. The counterintuitive conclusion, Dijksterhuis says, is that complex decisions are best made without conscious attention to the problem at hand.
They then left the laboratory to further test this result in a more ecological setting:
To test the idea in a more natural setting, the researchers visited two stores: the international furniture store IKEA and a department store called Bijenkorf. A pilot study with volunteer subjects had suggested that shoppers weigh more attributes when buying furniture than when buying kitchen accessories and other simple products commonly purchased at Bijenkorf. The researchers quizzed shoppers at the two stores about how much time they’d spent thinking about their purchases and then called them a few weeks later to gauge their satisfaction. Bijenkorf shoppers who spent more time consciously deliberating their choices were more pleased with their purchases–evidence that conscious thought is good for simple decisions, Dijksterhuis says. But at IKEA, the reverse was true: Those who reported spending less time deliberating turned out to be the happiest.
Of course, these results square well with a host of other recent neuroeconomic experiments which have found that decision-making is not only a matter of pain-staking cognitive deliberations, but also involves automatic and unconscious emotional biases. Yet, I’m beginning to wonder if we are not now in a position where we need more experimental attention to the interplay of emotions and cognition.
 In forthcoming issue of NeuroImage there will appear a new neuromarketing study by a German team that suggest that brand knowledge is computed by parts of the prefrontal cortex. Here’s the abstract:
Brands have a high impact on people’s economic decisions. People may prefer products of brands even among almost identical products. Brands can be defined as cultural-based symbols, which promise certain advantages of a product. Recent studies suggest that the prefrontal cortex may be crucial for the processing of brand knowledge. The aim of this study was to examine the neural correlates of culturally based brands. We confronted subjects with logos of car manufactures during an fMRI session and instructed them to imagine and use a car of these companies. As a control condition, we used graphically comparable logos of car manufacturers that were unfamiliar to the culture of the subjects participating in this study. If they did not know the logo of the brand, they were told to imagine and use a generic car. Results showed activation of a single region in the medial prefrontal cortex related to the logos of the culturally familiar brands. We discuss the results as self-relevant processing induced by the imagined use of cars of familiar brands and suggest that the prefrontal cortex plays a crucial role for processing culturally based brands.
Again, if you have paid attention to the now rather huge literature on preferences, you will not be overly surprised by this result, although we may wonder why the Neuron brand study I mentioned last week found activation in lateral parts of the PFC, and this study activation in the medial parts. Two things, however. (1) First, a lot of studies are pointing to the medial OFC, or orbitofrontal cortex, as the locus of utility tracking, or the seat of the brain’s overall preference system. But what is this section of the brain actually doing. (2) What does the brain’s preference system more precisely have to do with brands? Is “a brand” just certain emotional response to some product or person? If so, how are such emotional preferences build?
 Finally, let me point you to a new review of the current status of the field of neuroeconomics which are set to appear in the next issue of Trends in Cognitive Science. The in press version can be found here. The authors are Alan Sanfey, George Loewenstein, Samuel McClure and Jon Cohen, four of the leaders of the field.
Dijksterhuis, A. et al. (2006): On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect. Science 311: 1005-1007.
Schaefer, M. et al. (In press): Neural correlates of culturally familiar brands of car manufacturers. NeuroImage, to appear.
Sanfey, A. et al. (In press): Neuroeconomics: cross-currents in research on decision-making. Trends in Cognitive Science, to appear.