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MRI to understand how we shop

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Bangor University scientists are embarking on a major project to work out why we shop the way we do.

Researchers from the Department of Psychology will brain-scan supermarket shoppers to try to work out what’s going on in our brains when we’re presented with promotions and special offers.

The project, conducted in partnership with the retail research firm SBXL, will ask shoppers to simulate a trip to the supermarket – all while in a £3 million fMRI scanner. The experiment works by displaying products on a screen and then asking the test subject to pick from a range of special offers. The scientists will then use the brain scans to find out which parts of our brains we use when making decisions in the shops every day.

Dr Paul Mullins, Bangor University’s senior lecturer in Psychology, said about the work, “We are really excited about this new research opportunity. Our 3T MRI system allows us to investigate the neural basis of decision making. Using advanced brain imaging techniques we hope to get a better understanding of how shoppers respond to special offers. This also gives us the chance to bring our research on decision making into a real world context, and we hope will tell us a lot about how we respond to different types of competing information in the world around us. In particular we are interested in how factors we may be unconsciously aware of can override what might be considered the optimal choice based on conscious judgements.”

Previous research suggests that people often don’t act rationally when they’re in supermarkets, because the brain suffers from ‘information overload’.

Nearly half of shoppers only buy one product of a ‘buy one get one free’ deal, and almost 20 per cent will buy special offers even if they’re more expensive than the normal product.

With almost a quarter of products in the supermarkets on special offer, it’s also thought that supermarkets and brands are losing out on millions of pounds by getting their promotions policy wrong – explaining why three major grocery and healthcare companies are sponsoring the project.

And the news for any of us trying to save money at the supermarket? Early results suggest that after 23 minutes there, we start to make choices with the emotional part of our brains rather than the cognitive part, making us more susceptible to marketing – and after 40 minutes the brain effectively shuts down when it comes to making logical decisions. The moral of the story is – get in and out of Morrisons fast!

 

 

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Edwin Pynegar

Science Editor 2013/14

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