• Michelle Niedziela, PhD

On Myths and Methods

Updated: Jan 26

Apparently, it’s been 8 years since I joined the HCD team. It’s been an awesome ride, as they say: if you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. And this is what I truly enjoy doing.

When I first reached out to Glenn Kessler a bit over 8 years ago, it was with interest in applying neuroscience techniques and psychological methodologies to better understand consumer behavior. The field, then known as “neuromarketing,” had been around for a bit but was rife with pseudoscience and outlandish claims.

And most of the work was being done in ad testing and not consumer product research.

I’d already been applying these approaches in my previous roles and just knew there was more space for it. Glenn agreed, and the rest is history as they say.

That first year at HCD, I started hitting the neuromarketing conference circuit. And I saw… things. Horrible things. I saw people claiming that 90% of consumer decision making is “non-conscious” (not true). I saw PhD scientists claiming they could run studies with cheap EEG headsets and people walking through crowded stores (terrible research design) AND making predictions on purchase behavior based on that (with very small sample sizes). I saw companies desperately putting profit over science. Once, after giving a talk and being introduced as a neuroscientist (I do have a PhD in behavioral neurogenetics), the next speaker, who had dropped out of undergraduate university, was also introduced as a neuroscientist and gave a talk about neurotechnology that was riddled with bad science. I was disheartened to say the least.

But I also saw a great opportunity. And, luckily, Glenn Kessler and the HCD team were on board.

We wanted the field to do better. We wanted our results to be better. We wanted our clients to be satisfied with real, meaningful, and actionable results. And we wanted to be open and honest about it.

No black box metrics.

No over-hyping technologies.

We wanted to educate our clients so that they could be active partners in the research and better discriminate among the myriad of neuromarketing companies out there.

And, thus, started my manifesto tour. I began writing articles, blogs, and tweets about neurohype and calling out the pseudoscience. I gave lectures and interviews talking about the problems and sharing the basics of neuroscience and the psychology of emotion. We even started our own annual symposium, bringing academics and industry people together to help clients get the background knowledge they would need to make educated decisions.

So now, after 8 years, where are we?

Well, I wish I could say that there was a paradigm shift. I wish I could say that the snake oil sales and neurohype went away, but it didn’t. The field has changed names over time. From neuromarketing, to a focus more on system 1 and non-conscious research, to consumer or applied neuroscience, and now more behavioral sciences.

I do think the clients have become more educated on the topic. They have begun having more neuroscientists and psychologists as behavioral scientists on staff, making them much more savvy consumers. But the field is still catching up to this. They haven’t always respected that the client may know what they are talking about, instead trying to woo them with technical jargon. And this will be a challenge they will have to face.

At HCD, we will continue to try to fight the good fight. We will advocate for using the right tool for the right question. And when we hear of a questionable application, we will ask to PROVE IT.


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