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Forum Explores Consent, Ethics And Consumer Neuromarketing

UC San Diego neuroscientist  Uma Karmarker is pictured in an undated photo.
UC San Diego
UC San Diego neuroscientist Uma Karmarker is pictured in an undated photo.
Forum Explores Consent, Ethics And Consumer Neuromarketing
Forum Thursday Explores Consent And Neuromarketing GUEST: Uma Karmarker, assistant professor, Rady School of Management and the School for Global Policy at UC San Diego

Tracking consumer preferences scientifically has become routine as we go about our lives shopping for groceries or buying shoes online. Advertisers amass mountains of data about what we buy and how we like to spend our time and we can see the evidence of that tracking on our receipts and in our web browsers. UC San Diego neuroscientist Ooma car marker says we should be talking about the issues of consent and privacy in collecting that data. Car marker will be part of a forum on it on the Neuroethics of advertising that's tomorrow night at 530 at the downtown central library. She spoke with PBS Jade Heinzman Ooma car marker. Thank you so much for joining us. What is the goal of consumer neuroscience in practice. So in the marketplace what people are trying to do is get additional information and an additional understanding of how consumers are reacting to a product and a retail experience an advertisement even product packaging. So the companies that use these Marazion tough neuroscientific techniques are also doing other kinds of market research. They may ask a focus group or just have people fill out surveys but in addition occasionally they're using these techniques like eye tracking like facial emotion encoding or even ones that measure brain active like EEG or electroencephalography to get more information or different kinds of information on how people are reacting. Now these f MRI and EEG studies the neuro imaging that we were talking about that sometimes reveal things about consumers that are opposite of what we'd expect and what people might admit. Can you share an example of that. Sure. So actually in a lot of these market research studies because people are signing up to do this they want to tell you how they feel about it. They may just not have access to it. So there are plenty of responses where people see things and tell you what they think they like and may not be able to access that they are surprised by something or that they liked it or disliked it. One of the older representations of this was with the orange dust on Cheetos and the idea that people seemed to think that it's kind of gross and sticky but that there's a subversive benefit to that. Now I should say that the two techniques that you mentioned so functional magnetic resonance imaging and EEG are the ones that directly measure brain activity. And so the idea behind it is that there is something implicit in the brain that provides a signal of that. Another great story is a research study done in a university where they asked people how much they liked different songs that they were hearing while they were in an MRI scanner. And so after people reported Oh I like the song better or I like the song worse but they also had the brain data of how people were reacting when they were listening to the songs and what they found is that people's neural data was better at predicting which songs eventually became popular compared to the information they got by just asking people. So again people wanted to see what they liked and they probably were reporting what they liked accurately. But there was some extra information in that brain data that was representative of what everybody might like more. Interesting. Now is there something in our brains that tells researchers I'm going to buy this. I'm pausing only because I think there is. There are two questions in there one is whether or not we have a buy button like that I could activate to get you to buy it. And as far as we know so far there's no such thing. Now it's a more complicated question about whether we have something in the brain that represents the idea that we're going to buy it. We definitely have brain areas that represent how rewarding something is or how much we like it. We even have a neural representation of our willingness to pay for something this is worth more in the range of five dollars for me versus this is worth more in the range of 20 dollars for me it's unclear whether those brain signals are more representative of the actual willingness to pay or liking than just asking someone. So that's where things get tricky. But these values are represented in neural data. The trick is that most companies actually don't use MRI imaging the technique that's used most often in the marketplace is EEG. So for someone at a university you may be studying these signals. It's less common that someone in a company is studying them at least in terms of f MRI. Well now if participants are consenting to this research what are the ethical concerns about consumer neuroscience. I think there are ethical concerns in the population partially because there may not have been good communication about what's actually happening. So as you mentioned everyone involved in the majority of these particularly these of mine EEG studies is consenting. And so I think the ethical concerns come from this first principle that I mention of whether there's a byde button. So if we do these studies are we going to magically discover this by button. Currently there isn't evidence to suggest that this is possible. That doesn't rule out that it might be in the future. So I think it's a really important conversation to be having right now while we are thinking actively about it but it's useful to make that distinction and then the other ethical concern is whether or not there is information that could could be collected without our knowledge. And that's where things get tricky. Currently an MRI scanner is a giant piece of medical equipment. I couldn't sneak up on anyone with one. Nobody else could either. However there is information that falls under the umbrella of neuro marketing or consumer neuroscience that technically could be recorded such as where you're looking when you're looking on a computer screen or what you're looking at from a camera. And I think that raises these issues right now in terms of whether there should be regulation on what kinds of data on what kinds of information should be collected. So is there a need here to talk about whether people are giving consent to have this information taken. It's an interesting question in my personal opinion. It's a good time to have this conversation because we are technically able to consider that these technologies might be used and there are one or two examples where at least representation of people's faces has been collected in a market setting. So there was a mall in Canada where when people looked at the Electronic directory there was a camera behind it that was also taking video of their faces. And the idea was to get a sense for who's coming to the mall and who's using the directory. But people were very uncomfortable when they discovered this because of the idea that this had somehow been taken without their consent with that said there are many kinds of data. So I want to put this in the larger scope or context or ecosystem of all of the data that's collected within without our consent at this time because that broader scope honestly holds more information than some of these individual consumer neuroscience techniques for example. Obviously as we know there's data collected on us every time we make a financial transaction every time we use a credit card we know that we get targeted coupons at the checkout counter at the grocery store that means that there's some kind of information that they're representing their friend. And so it's the aggregate of all of this information as a whole which I think has also propagated this conversation right now. So it's true you could capture some information about who's looking at a directory. I think there's a larger question of given all the information about what you buy online which you buy in the store where your cell phone is by its GPL. Should we be having a broad conversation about data and consent and privacy at this time. And again my opinion is certainly that we should Ooma car marker. Thanks so much for joining us very informative. Thank you for having me. That was KPBS's Jade Hindmon the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology Forum on the neuro ethics of advertising is free and open to the public. It takes place tomorrow night at 5 30 at the downtown central library. More information is on our Web site.

Tracking eye movement and reading brain waves have become tried and true techniques used by advertisers to home in on consumer preferences for everything from chips to cars.

Companies use neuroscientific techniques like eye tracking, encoding facial emotions and electroencephalogram, or EEG, which measures brain activity, to get more information about how people react to certain advertisements, products or packaging.

UC San Diego neuroscientist Uma Karmarkar said even though the majority of this research is conducted with the full consent of participants, there are ethical concerns about the practice of consumer neuroscience.


"There's information that falls under neuromarketing, or consumer neuroscience, that technically could be recorded, such as where you're looking when you're looking on a computer screen, or what you're looking at from a camera. And I think that raises these issues right now on whether there should be regulation on what kinds of data and what kinds of information should be collected," Karmarkar said.

Just this summer a Canadian company suspended its use of facial recognition software in mall directories after public outcry over the lack of consent.

Karmarker will take part in a discussion on that topic at a forum hosted by the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology called "My Brain Made Me Buy It? Neuroethics of Advertising" at 5:30 p.m., Thursday at the downtown central library.

Karmarker joins Midday Edition on Wednesday