Neuro-Cola: Neuroscience’s ability to measure consumer preference (Part 1)

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At last week’s BioLaw and Health Policy Society event, Dr. Sam McClure, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, spoke about branding and consumer preference. I will discuss his talk in two parts. Part 1 will discuss his research, and Part 2 will discuss the policy implications.

While Dr. McClure was a graduate student at Baylor College of Medicine, he used fMRI to research the neural basis for consumer preference of Coke and Pepsi. Specifically, Dr. McClure wanted to know how cultural messages about the drink combined with the actual substance to result in a preference.

When subjects did not know what they were drinking (either Coke or Pepsi), they were evenly split on which soda they preferred. Activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (a brain area implicated in reward) was higher when the person drank the soda they said they liked better.

In the next part of the experiment, participants had to choose between two samples of Coke, one labeled “Coke” and one that was unlabelled. They preferred the drink with the label 73% of the time, even though the contents of the cups were identical. (When this semi-anonymous taste test was done with Pepsi, the results did not change significantly from the blind taste test.) The DLPFC, hippocampus, and midbrain were more active when the participant knowingly drank Coke than when they drank unlabeled Coke. The hippocampus (involved in recalling declarative memories) and DLPFC (involved in cognitive control, including working memory) have both been previously implicated in modifying behavior based on emotion and affect.

Dr. McClure concluded that consumer preference is determined by the interaction of two independent systems processing basic reward (taste) and cultural information (brand loyalty).

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