When grabbing a coffee mug out of a cluttered cabinet or choosing a pen to quickly sign a document, what brain processes guide your choices?
New research from Carnegie Mellon University's Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC) shows that the brain's visual perception system automatically and unconsciously guides decision-making through valence perception. Published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the review hypothesizes that valence, which can be defined as the positive or negative information automatically perceived in the majority of visual information, integrates visual features and associations from experience with similar objects or features. In other words, it is the process that allows our brains to rapidly make choices between similar objects.
The findings offer important insights into consumer behavior in ways that traditional consumer marketing focus groups cannot address. For example, asking individuals to react to package designs, ads or logos is simply ineffective. Instead, companies can use this type of brain science to more effectively assess how unconscious visual valence perception contributes to consumer behavior.
To transfer the research's scientific application to the online video market, the CMU research team is in the process of founding the start-up company neonlabs through the support of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps).
"This basic research into how visual object recognition interacts with and is influenced by affect paints a much richer picture of how we see objects," said Michael J. Tarr, the George A. and Helen Dunham Cowan Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and co-director of the CNBC. "What we now know is that common, household objects carry subtle positive or negative valences and that these valences have an impact on our day-to-day behavior."
Tarr added that the NSF I-Corps program has been instrumental in helping the neonlabs' team take this basic idea and teaching them how to turn it into a viable company. "The I-Corps program gave us unprecedented access to highly successful, experienced entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who provided incredibly valuable feedback throughout the development process," he said.
NSF established I-Corps for the sole purpose of assessing the readiness of transitioning new scientific opportunities into valuable products through a public-private partnership. The CMU team of Tarr, Sophie Lebrecht, a CNBC and Tepper School of Business postdoctoral fellow, Babs Carryer, an embedded entrepreneur at CMU's Project Olympus, and Thomas Kubilius, president of Pittsburgh-based Bright Innovation and adjunct professor of design at CMU, were awarded a $50,000, six-month grant to investigate how understanding valence perception could be used to make better consumer marketing decisions. They are launching neonlabs to apply their model of visual preference to increase click rates on online videos, by identifying the most visually appealing thumbnail from a stream of video. The web-based software product selects a thumbnail based on neuroimaging data on object perception and valence, crowd sourced behavioral data and proprietary computational analyses of large amounts of video streams.
"Everything you see, you automatically dislike or like, prefer or don't prefer, in part, because of valence perception," said Lebrecht, lead author of the study and the entrepreneurial lead for the I-Corps grant. "Valence links what we see in the world to how we make decisions."
Lebrecht continued, "Talking with companies such as YouTube and Hulu, we realized that they are looking for ways to keep users on their sites longer by clicking to watch more videos. Thumbnails are a huge problem for any online video publisher, and our research fits perfectly with this problem. Our approach streamlines the process and chooses the screenshot that is the most visually appealing based on science, which will in the end result in more user clicks."
Wearing Two Different Hats:
Focusing on dual-occupation professionals, the researchers found that engineers had one perspective on ethical issues, yet when those same individuals were in management roles, their moral compass shifted. Likewise, medic/soldiers in the U.S. Army had different views of civilian casualties depending on whether they most recently had been acting as soldiers or medics.
In the study, to be published in a future issue of The Academy of Management Journal, lead author Keith Leavitt of Oregon State University found that workers who tend to have dual roles in their jobs would change their moral judgments based on what they thought was expected of them at the moment.
"When people switch hats, they often switch moral compasses," Leavitt said. "People like to think they are inherently moral creatures -- you either have character or you don't. But our studies show that the same person may make a completely different decision based on what hat they may be wearing at the time, often without even realizing it."
Leavitt, an assistant professor of management in the College of Business at OSU, is an expert on non-conscious decision making and business ethics. He studies how people make decisions and moral judgments, often based on non-conscious cues.
He said recent high-profile business scandals, from the collapse of Enron to the Ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff, have called into question the ethics of professionals. Leavitt said professional organizations, employers and academic institutions may want to train and prepare their members for practical moral tensions they may face when asked to serve in multiple roles.
"What we consider to be moral sometimes depends on what constituency we are answering to at that moment," Leavitt said. "For a physician, a human life is priceless. But if that same physician is a managed-care administrator, some degree of moral flexibility becomes necessary to meet their obligations to stockholders."
Leavitt said subtle cues -- such as signage and motivation materials around the office -- should be considered, along with more direct training that helps employees who juggle multiple roles that could conflict with one another.
"Organizations and businesses need to recognize that even very subtle images and icons can give employees non-conscious clues as to what the firm values," he said. "Whether they know it or not, people are often taking in messages about what their role is and what is expected of them, and this may conflict with what they know to be the moral or correct decision."
The researchers conducted three different studies with employees who had dual roles. In one case, 128 U.S. Army medics were asked to complete a series of problem-solving tests, which included subliminal cues that hinted they might be acting as either a medic or a soldier. No participant said the cues had any bearing on their behavior -- but apparently they did. A much larger percentage of those in the medic category than in the soldier category were unwilling to put a price on human life.
In another test, a group of engineer-managers were asked to write about a time they either behaved as a typical manager, engineer, or both. Then they were asked whether U.S. firms should engage in "gifting" to gain a foothold in a new market. Despite the fact such a practice would violate federal laws, more than 50 percent of those who fell into the "manager" category said such a practice might be acceptable, compared to 13 percent of those in the engineer category.
"We find that people tend to make decisions that may conflict with their morals when they are overwhelmed, or when they are just doing routine tasks without thinking of the consequences," Leavitt said. "We tend to play out a script as if our role has already been written. So the bottom line is, slow down and think about the consequences when making an ethical decision."
Experiencing strong emotions synchronizes brain activity across individuals, a research team at Aalto University and Turku PET Centre in Finland has revealed.
Human emotions are highly contagious. Seeing others' emotional expressions such as smiles triggers often the corresponding emotional response in the observer. Such synchronization of emotional states across individuals may support social interaction: When all group members share a common emotional state, their brains and bodies process the environment in a similar fashion.
Researchers at Aalto University and Turku PET Centre have now found that feeling strong emotions makes different individuals' brain activity literally synchronous.
The results revealed that especially feeling strong unpleasant emotions synchronized brain's emotion processing networks in the frontal and midline regions. On the contrary, experiencing highly arousing events synchronized activity in the networks supporting vision, attention and sense of touch.
"Sharing others' emotional states provides the observers a somatosensory and neural framework that facilitates understanding others' intentions and actions and allows to 'tune in' or 'sync' with them. Such automatic tuning facilitates social interaction and group processes," says Adjunct Professor Lauri Nummenmaa from the Aalto University, Finland.
"The results have major implications for current neural models of human emotions and group behavior. It also deepens our understanding of mental disorders involving abnormal socioemotional processing," Nummenmaa says.
Participants' brain activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging while they were viewing short pleasant, neutral and unpleasant movies.