The Brain in Context

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in the neural mechanisms of choice, a field of study referred to as decision neuroscience or neuroeconomics. This research has delineated a network in the brain involved in valuation and choice, consisting of the striatum, medial prefrontal cortex and associated areas. However, it is clear that choices under natural conditions are never made in isolation and depend on the context.

In one line of research, we investigate how the history of past choices and outcomes impacts on current choices. For example, we demonstrate a shift in risk-taking preferences as a function of previous gains or losses (i.e, break even and house money effects), with participants showing a greater preference towards riskier decisions in the context of a prior loss, a phenomenon we found to be mediated by increased activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (Hytonen et al., 2014; Losecaat Vermeer et al., 2014). As another example, we observed that people tend to choose a greater diversity of items than when they are asked to make these selections one at a time (Couwenberg et al, 2020). We found that the current state of their choice portfolio (i.e., the previously selected options) dynamically modulates activity in the striatum and medial prefrontal cortex. Our findings combined suggest that the context of previous choices and outcomes strongly impact how the brain evaluates current choice options.

Persuasive communication

In other studies, with direct relevance to marketing communication, we focus on the persuasive effects of a presenter's expertise, physical attractiveness and famousness on a consumer's memory of and attitude towards a product. We find that a credible link between the celebrity and the endorsed product (e.g., tennis player Djokovic endorsing a sports shoe) leads to a better memory recall of the product owing to stronger memory encoding at the level of the hippocampus (Klucharev, Smidts, Fernandez, 2008). Moreover, a credible endorser also improves the viewer's attitude to the product by inducing a trust response at the level of the caudate nucleus. Given a credible endorser, we find that a famous endorser (vs. an equally attractive, non-famous presenter) activates positive associations and emotions in memory. This positive affect is seemingly transferred to the product at the level of medial OFC, indicating an increased valuation of the product which manifests itself in a greater buying intention (Stallen et al., 2009).

Recent research by Couwenberg et al. (2017) focuses on the neural processes underlying differences in advertising execution styles (i.e., informational vs experiential advertising) and how these neural processes, in turn, are related to ad effectiveness. Evidence suggests that ads which engage brain processes related to both the processing of the value of the advertised product to the consumer as well as creative thought and emotional engagement are most persuasive.



Couwenberg, L.E., Boksem, M.A.S., Sanfey, A.G., Smidts, A. Neural Mechanisms of Choice Diversification (2020) Frontiers in Neuroscience, .doi:/10.3389/fnins.2020.00502

Losecaat Vermeer, A.B., Boksem, M.A.S., Sanfey, A.G. Third-party decision-making under risk as a function of prior gains and losses (2020) Journal of Economic Psychology, 77(3), 102206

Kim, B. Genevsky, A., Knutson B., Tsai, J. (2019). Culturally-valued facial expressions enhance loan request success. Emotion, doi: 10.1037/emo0000642

Couwenberg, L.E., Boksem, M.A.S., Dietvorst, R.C., Worm, L., Verbeke, W.J.M.I. & Smidts, A. (2017). Neural Responses to Functional and Experiential Ad Appeals: Explaining Ad Effectiveness. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 34 (2017) 355-366.

Losecaat-Vermeer, A.B., Boksem, M.A.S., Sanfey, A.G. (2014). Neural mechanisms underlying context-dependent shifts in risk preferences. Neuroimage 103, 355-363.

Hytonen, K.A., Baltussen, G., Assem, M.J. van den, Klucharev, V.A., Sanfey, A.G. & Smidts, A. (2014). Path Dependence in Risky Choice: Affective and Deliberative Processes in Brain and Behavior. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 107 (11), 566-581.

Stallen, M., Smidts, A., Smit, G., Klucharev, V., Fernández, G., Rijpkema, M. (2009). Celebrities and Shoes on the Female Brain: The Neural Correlates of Product Evaluation in the Context of Fame. Journal of Economic Psychology 31 (5), 802-811

Klucharev, V., Smidts, A., & Fernandez, G. (2008). Brain mechanisms of persuasive communication: How “Expert Power” modulates memory and attitudesSocial Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience3(4), 353-366.

Smidts, A., Klucharev, V.A. & Fernandez, G. (2009). Een beroemde persoon die een product aanprijst: Wat vindt uw brein daarvan? Ontwikkelingen in het Marktonderzoek / Jaarboek MOA, 34, 103-117