Fourth Industrial Revolution

Why do we want the latest gadgets? This is what brain science tells us

A man looks at his Apple iPad in front an Apple logo outside an Apple store in downtown Shanghai March 16, 2012.

A neuroscientists looks at the reasons behind the success of brands like Apple, and how technology is changing our understanding of our basic needs. Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

Sundeep Teki
Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow in Neuroscience, Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris and the University of Oxford
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On September 9, 2015, Apple launched iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus. Six days later, Apple announced a record number of first day pre-orders of the new iPhones, with more than four million orders in the first 24 hours. When the latest iPhones were announced, there were the now commonplace scenes of frenzy, hysteria and fierce competition on who will be the first to possess another piece of their ‘precious’.

Is such record-breaking and hyper-aggressive consumer behavior simply a reflection of Apple’s technical genius, product design or excellent marketing strategies or something more fundamental than we think? In evolutionary terms, our brains are genetically wired to seek and satisfy basic survival needs including sex, security, and social status. The act of seeking and realizing what we desire triggers activity in the reward network of the brain (in a region called the striatum) that is accompanied by the release of a chemical (or a neurotransmitter) called dopamine, which reinforces such compulsive behaviours. Most types of the rewards tend to increase the level of dopamine in the brain and if uncontrolled excessive reward and pleasure seeking may lead to powerful addiction disorders as seen in drug addiction, alcoholism, gambling and even Wall Street trading.

However, in today’s developed world, where the basic survival needs are easily met by most if not all classes of society, internet and social media brands make it easier for us to express our basic human need to communicate (Whatsapp), to be connected (Facebook), to share information (Twitter), pictures (Instagram) or music (Spotify), and even seek romantic partners, in a socially acceptable (Tinder) or unacceptable way (Ashley Madison)! Not unsurprisingly, a neuroimaging study revealed that Apple products activate the same parts of the brain in its fans as religious images trigger in a person of faith.

The potent combination of smart marketing and neuroscience has given rise to a new field termed “neuromarketing” whereby businesses seek to understand consumer behavior through experimental psychology and neuroscience research and identify compelling methods to continually capture the consumer’s admiration and thirst for their products. Recently, the latest advances in machine learning research coupled with reducing costs of storing massive amounts of data and sophisticated open-source computing tools have given rise to a new field of ‘data science’. Businesses all over the world, now increasingly employ ‘data scientists’, who enjoy what Harvard Business Review2 heralded as the “sexiest job of the 21st century”. Armed with mountains of consumer data (e.g. website clicks on Facebook or online shopping preferences on Amazon or Flipkart), data scientists make sense of this ‘big’ data (90% of the world’s total data was created in the past two years; source: IBM) and deliver solutions and strategies to predict consumer choices and provide personalized recommendations.

The brands have now thus become a part of our daily lexicon (“Facebook/Whatsapp me”) and the consumer has now become a product whose every action is monitored (whether you like it or not), whose behavior can be analyzed based on modern research techniques combining marketing, machine learning and neuroscience so that s/he may one day be sold products even before s/he is conscious of the desire!

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