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Can neuromarketing read your mind?

September 15, 2014 0 Comments

tinfoil-hatA big concern of some commentators is that neuromarketing is a kind of mind-reading technology that can probe into our private thoughts and expose them to marketers.

This concern vastly overestimates the power of neuromarketing and misrepresents the sciences that underlie it. We cover this topic in detail throughout Neuromarketing for Dummies, but for now we want to emphasize that measuring brain waves and body signals with various kinds of sensors is not the same as reading thoughts. What neuromarketing technologies can say with some precision is that, at a moment in time, a person is exhibiting certain physical states that tend to be associated with certain mental states (like being attentive, or experiencing approach motivation, or feeling confused), but these mental states are not in themselves thoughts.

For example, your brain waves have a distinctive shape when you’re paying attention to something, but those brain waves don’t identify with certainty what you’re paying attention to. You may be paying attention to what a salesperson is saying to you, or you may be paying attention to the clock because you want the salesperson to shut up so you can get to your next meeting, or you may be rehearsing what you’re going to say in that next meeting. Someone looking at your brain waves can’t tell the difference; they can only see that you’re paying attention to something.

As we explain in later chapters, our brains have complex internal lives above and beyond their “day job” of orienting us and keeping us safe in the world. There is no scientifically reputable scenario in which that internal life is going to be opened up to external scrutiny in the foreseeable future. This is not a problem that consumers or public advocacy groups need to worry about.

Privacy, on the other hand, is an important concern. Standards around privacy are fundamentally important to the integrity and long-term viability of neuromarketing for one critical group: participants in neuromarketing research studies.

In the United States, any scientist who engages in federally funded research with human subjects must comply with privacy protection requirements as defined by the human subjects guidelines of the Department of Health and Human Services. These guidelines require the oversight of every study by an institutional (or independent) review board (IRB) composed of healthcare professionals, subject matter experts, and community leaders. The IRB provides written approval of all study designs, consent forms, procedures for protecting vulnerable populations (such as children, medical patients, and pregnant women), and participant privacy.

Federally mandated privacy policies require that participants’ confidential data be stored securely and that their results from a study be identified by an anonymous ID that can only be matched back to their confidential identity data using a third, equally secure, matching database. Some IRB policies also state that data can’t be reported on an individual-by-individual basis, even if it’s masked; instead, it can only be reported as group averages.

If a neuromarketing firm employs a staff member who also holds a university teaching position, that firm probably operates under an IRB agreement, because faculty members are usually required to have IRB approval for all human subjects research they perform, even if it’s conducted for a private company. However, a private neuromarketing firm may not be subject to these privacy regulations, if it’s unconnected to federally funded staff or research. Therefore, it’s always best to ask a potential neuromarketing partner about its participant privacy protection policies. You’ll find that reputable companies either operate under IRB approval, or subscribe to the privacy policy guidelines of a research industry organization like ESOMAR ( or the Neuromarketing Science & Business Association (

N4D-cover -120pxThis post is excerpted, with minor edits, from Neuromarketing for Dummies, Chapter 4, “Why Neuromarketing Matters.”

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About the Author:

Steve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

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