Researchers hope ultimately to discover the difference between what people say and what their brain activity shows. “For new products that people don’t have much experience with, maybe the brain has more intuition about whether they would try it than what comes out of their mouths,” adds Camerer. “This discrepancy may help explain why many new products fail, even when focus groups are enthusiastic about them.”
These types of insights might be particularly beneficial for products such as gym memberships or diet regimens, which people are likely to overestimate their interest in. “People often say that they plan to exercise more or east less, but whether they will follow through is another issue. There is probably something going on in the brain that predicts whether they really will,” Camerer says.
Still, neuroeconomists have a way to go before they can harness these techniques to help retailers and product developers. “It’s not clear to me that killer app is there yet,” says Russell Poldrack, director of the Imaging Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “The predictions you can make are significantly above chance, but in most domains, you can’t predict 100 percent of what people will do.”
Thus far, most neuroeconomic research has focused on understanding the choice between a potentially more rewarding but risky option and a less rewarding but more conservative one. According to Louie, the brain needs three basic modules to calculate choices: “an area that learns value based on past experience, an area that stores values, and a system that compares and selects the best option.”
Researchers are also trying to better understand how someone else’s behavior influences the decisions a person makes, a factor that may affect decisions across commercial markets. Humans appear to be instinctively driven by other people’s decisions, perhaps as a substitute for adequate information or confidence of their own. “Think of the person in the next cubicle who invested in Oracle,” says Montague. “You may have decided that investment was too risky, but you start to think twice after hearing his choice.”
In one ongoing study in Montague’s lab, researchers ask volunteers to make a hypothetical investment based on a given set of market information. They are then told what a second volunteer chose after being given the same set of information. The researchers observe how this influences both the decisions that people make and the way their brains behave. “What couples two brains together? Are there different types of people—those who are sensitive to these influences and those who are not?” asks Montague. With brain imaging, “you can eavesdrop and find variables you wouldn’t have found otherwise.”