Using fMRI “heatmaps” to understand online shopping behavior

Heatmaps to observe eye movements of online shoppers have been around for a while. They’re quite helpful. But in a perfect world marketers would get direct consumer intelligence. They’d see maps of consumers’ “emotional flow,” displayed dynamically as shopping decisions are taking place.

Brace yourself. We’re getting our wish.

Armed with fMRI imagery, emotional heatmaps (my term) are being charted and analyzed. They’re yielding fascinating insights into why we choose the purchases we do.

Take the recent work of William Hedgcock and Akshay R. Rao (in this PDF report). Hedgecock is assistant professor of marketing at the University of Iowa’s College of Business. Rao is director of the Institute for Research in Marketing at the Department of Marketing & Logistics Management at the University of Minnesota. This duo has recently published findings on why some shopping decisions are so difficult to make — and how adding a “decoy” option can get consumers “unstuck” and back in the buying mood.

Overall, they are using functional magnetic resonance imaging — or fMRI — to “offer an assessment of whether and how neuroscientific techniques might be employed in the study of consumer choice in particular and consumer behavior in general.” Yeah, right. Here’s the English translation …

Relieving Aristotle’s Anxiety

This is what they did:

  1. Subjects were hooked up to fMRI machines and presented a choice between two purchases. The choice was so close in desirability a mental stalemate occurred. The consumer chose neither. (As the researchers noted, Aristotle first discussed this tendency toward stalemate by describing a person who was equally thirsty and hungry, and equidistant from food and drink. In this famous thought experiment, Aristotle’s subject remained in place until he dies.)
  2. A third choice — one less desirable than the first two — was presented in the mix. This was their decoy choice.
  3. fMRI readings showed that the mental discomfort generated by the stalemate went away. Once this anxiety level was lowered, a selection between the two “dominant” options usually followed.

Their conclusion suggested that the addition of an item, simply to hasten a decision, not only makes sense when you tally purchases, but is also validated by watching real-time fMRI heatmaps.

For e-marketers, a greater takeaway is this: The day is on its way when we can validate our assumptions about major types of “shopping cart conflicts,” and find automated ways to aviod or resolve them.