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Marketing and Mind Control

How the emotional parts of our brains can be manipulated.

By Wray Herbert
: Newsweek

Imagine that I have $100 and I offer you $20 of it, no strings attached. You'd take it, right? Any fool would; it's a windfall. But imagine further that you know I must give away part of my $100 or lose it all. All of a sudden my motives aren't entirely altruistic, but I'm still offering you free money. Take it or leave it, but no negotiation allowed. How would you feel? What would you do?

If you were like a lot of people who have answered these questions in a psychological experiment over the years, you would now feel conflicted. Many of these people actually walked away from the deal, even though it would have meant a no-strings-attached twenty bucks in their pockets. Why? Because the arrangement is fundamentally unfair, and once you know this your basic sense of moral indignation clicks in. Your emotions and principles trump your pure rationality.

Psychologists have demonstrated this in the laboratory, time and time again. It's known as the Ultimatum Game, and its counterintuitive findings are part of a broad new understanding of how the human brain and mind work. As it turns out, we are not very reasonable creatures much of the time, nor are we very aware. Indeed, we are under constant sway of our emotions and intuitions, and most of the time we are not even aware of just how quirky and emotional our everyday decisions are.

Consider another experiment from the emerging field of social neuroscience. Psychologist John Bargh flashed words in front of volunteers, but so rapidly that they did not register in the conscious mind. Some of the words had to do with rudeness (like impolite and obnoxious) while others were the opposite (respect, considerate). The volunteers were later put in a simulated situation in which they could be civil toward one another—or not. Many who had seen the words associated with rudeness were not. Two-thirds of the volunteers who had been primed with rudeness words interrupted another person afterward, compared to only 16 percent of those primed with politeness words.

I don't know about you, but I find this very sobering.

It seems Bargh was able to make human beings behave politely or rudely, and without all that much effort, simply by fiddling with the automatic, emotional parts of their brain.

What does this say about our autonomy, our free will? This is the basic question raised by neurologist Richard Restak in his new, somewhat dystopian book, "The Naked Brain," published late last month by Harmony Books. It's worth reading, both as a solid primer on a fascinating new psychological science and as a warning about the potential misuse of brain science for nefarious purposes.

The power of our emotional brain is not a good thing or a bad thing entirely. It depends on the situation. It's probably good that our righteous moral indignation clicks on automatically sometimes; our personal finances may suffer a bit, but we're better people for it.

But how about other fast, automatic emotions, like fear? Cognitive psychologist Michael Gazzaniga has done many experiments with patients who, for medical reasons, have had their brains' hemispheres disconnected. This means that the left hemisphere, in charge of language, isn't communicating with the right hemisphere. Using distressing pictures and words, Gazzaniga in effect creates negative emotion in the brain's right hemisphere, out of conscious awareness. The subjects experience the emotion, but they don't understand it, so the rational left hemisphere attempts to interpret the mysterious emotion, and it sometimes makes mistakes. So an unexplained dip in mood or a sensation of discomfort might be wrongly attributed to, say, a spouse's selfishness or even infidelity—with untoward consequences.

One of the most fascinating and potentially alarming findings to come out of social neuroscience has to do with specialized brain cells called "mirror neurons." Mirror neurons closely intertwine emotion with movement. They are what make you smile when a baby smiles, or make me grimace when I see you in pain. And the physical act of smiling or grimacing unleashes emotions of joy or suffering. In short, mirror neurons are the neurological foundation of empathy, which is a building block of compassion. But as Restak explains, such a potent connection between two brains could have a flip side: It means that all I have to do to manipulate your mind is to get your attention.

Marketers and politicians are already familiar with these advances in brain science, and are using this knowledge to control our behavior. Or at least they are trying to do so. Advertisements are deliberately designed to target the emotional brain and create bonds, even cravings (one of our basest and most powerful emotional drives).

Extensive research shows that our brains have certain hardwired propensities that might be exploited. For example, our brains tend to register frequently heard facts as true, even if they are patently false. As a result, our memories and beliefs are highly malleable and unreliable. We also tend, if unchecked by the conscious reasoning mind, to focus overly on risk, inconvenience, hassles—anything negative. And researchers have found that we all carry around an innate hostility toward "otherness," which means anyone not like us.

These hardwired traits are difficult to shake, in part because they were adaptive when our early ancestors were evolving on the savannahs and have been reinforced ever since. But they are clearly no longer adaptive, and indeed make us vulnerable to all sorts of subtle conditioning.

Should we be worried? In the final analysis, Restak does not believe that brain science has advanced far enough yet to give marketers any persuasive powers they didn't have already. Despite remarkable progress in understanding the brain's anatomy and biochemistry, the organ is far too complex an array of interconnected circuits to be that easily manipulated with simple subliminal stimuli. Advertisers may be disappointed to hear it, but there is no "Buy now!" switch hidden among the neurons and synapses.

That strikes me as a reasoned conclusion, just what one would expect from a deliberative scientific mind systematically weighing the available facts. So why do I have this nagging, unexplained sense of foreboding coming from some recess in my brain?

RELATED ARTICLE: The Truth about Brainwave Entrainment