Spotting Erroneous Customer Research
Martin Lindstrom, author of the bestseller Buyology, recently wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times entitled, “You Love your iPhone. Literally.” Despite Lindstrom’s status as a bestselling writer in the nascent neuromarketing field, his foray into the Op-Ed forum leaves some experts nervous. Lindstrom claims that because the same part of the brain processes the sounds of iPhone AND significant others, people love iPhones in the same way they love significant others. He writes the following:
The subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member. In short, the subjects didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction. Instead, they loved their iPhones.
While it’s important to note that any position will stir opposition, Lindstrom’s opposition pokes at the gaping holes in his reasoning. The content of his study is inaccurate at best and incompetent at worst. Essentially, the appeal of Lindstrom’s article is that it offers a reason for Apple’s success with the mistaken allure of “science.”
The Neurocritic, a scholar whose sole mission is to “deconstruct the most sensationalistic recent findings in human brain imaging, cognitive neuroscience, and psychopharmacology” points out a variety of issues with Lindstrom’s article. First, he bypassed peer review because it was published in the Op-Ed section rather than the Science section of the New York Times. Second, Lindstrom commits the logical fallacy of reverse inference. One cannot prove that participants experience certain cognitive or emotional states simply because it co-occurs with a pattern of brain activity.
David Dobbs, like the Neurocritic, calls attention to the fact that Lindstrom concluded iPhone owners love their phones on the basis of a study with eight participants. In many cases small sample sizes are the main reasons for experimental errors. There are statistical methods for working effectively with small sample sizes, but these were clearly not used in Lindstrom’s situation.
Finally, I’d like to point out Lindstrom’s language. Instead of stating that fMRI studies “give clues to” or “hint at” a pattern of brain activity that correlates to fMRI studies about the neuroscience of love, he stated his findings as pure fact. Lindstrom is a neuroscientist at heart, but his mistake was dumbing down the message without pointing out that he is simply making things palatable to the wider audience. However, I give credit to Lindstrom and others of the “easy rules of neuromarketing” ilk for getting the average business person interested in things like neuroscience.
The take-away from Lindstrom’s Op-Ed piece is that to build trust with an audience is to demand quality analysis. Not all research is expressed in a compelling way, but all compelling research has the potential to be a part of an effective message.