Research & Insights

Tuning Into The Pictures In Your Brain

Want to predict what messages are likely to resonate the most with people? Watch their brainwaves.

After analyzing brainwaves of just 16 individuals who watched the “Walking Dead” and commercials from past Super Bowls, researchers were able to accurately predict how their preferences matched those of a larger numbers of television viewers.

Findings from the study, “Audience Preferences Are Predicted by Temporal Reliability of Neural Processing,” conducted at the City College of New York (CCNY) in partnership with Georgia Tech appear in the July 29th edition of Nature Communications.

These findings suggest that analyzing brain waves provide more reliable results than other “methods such as self-reports” that can be “fraught with problems as people conform their responses to their own values and expectations,” said Jacek Dmochowski, lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral fellow at CCNY at the time the study was being conducted.

Brain signals measured using electroencephalography (EEG) can, in principle, alleviate this shortcoming by providing immediate physiological responses that are not effected to such self-biasing. “Our findings show that these immediate responses are in fact closely tied to the subsequent behavior of the general population,” Dmochowsk added.

In the study, participants, who had EEG electrodes placed on their heads, watched scenes from the TV series “The Walking Dead” and several commercials that appeared during the 2012 and 2013 Super Bowls.

“Brain activity among our participants watching ‘The Walking Dead’ predicted 40 percent of the associated Twitter traffic,” said Parra. “When brainwaves were in agreement, the number of tweets tended to increase.” Brainwaves also predicted 60 percent of the Nielsen ratings that measure the size of a TV audience.

The study was even more accurate (90 percent) when comparing preferences for Super Bowl ads. For instance, researchers saw very similar brainwaves from their participants as they watched a 2012 Budweiser commercial that featured a beer-fetching dog. The general public voted the ad as their second favorite that year.

Nature Communications July 2014

Jacek P. Dmochowski and Lucas C. Parra, City College of New York
Matthew A. Bezdek and Eric H. Schumacher, Georgia Institute of Technology
John S. Johnson and Brian P. Abelson, Harmony Institute

Posted: August 11, 2014
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