Ralph Nader and the regulation of neuroscience

Ralph Nader’s Commercial Alert group seeks to restrict or prohibit commercial research into neuroscience. You might recall that researchers at Emory are hard at work on this problem:

Neuromarketing research uses a magnetic resonance imaging machine, or MRI, to determine which parts of the brain react to different types of advertising in an effort to help marketers develop more effective marketing techniques for selling their products or services.

The critics charge that the research is directed at finding a “buy button” in the mind. Critics also raise the specter of mind control and the loss of individual autonomy. Commercial Alert makes the following threat:

“It is wrong to use medical research for marketing instead of healing,” Ruskin said. “If Emory University doesn’t stop this immediately, we will do everything in our power to shut down Emory’s federal funding.”

My take: The neuroscience techniques remain unproven, but in the meantime corporations are subsidizing an important science. Many of our most significant scientific discoveries have been by accident, when people were looking for some other result altogether. The support for research may well have a real long-run payoff.

Furthermore the worries are overblown. Let’s say we found such a buy button and that corporations could use that knowledge in their ads. Would it really shift the marketing balance of power in favor of sellers? Over time I would expect buyers to compensate, as the knowledge would not stay secret for very long. We could imagine lists of products that were sold by manipulative techniques, and customers would know to stay away from such products. A technological arms race would be set off. We could imagine private entrepreneurs selling “counter-persuasion” techniques to customers, perhaps in the form of drugs, warning buzzers, or counter-subliminal images flashed into your eyeglasses (the latter product is already under development!). Or how about programming the microchip credit card embedded in your arm to discourage or prevent such manipulation-induced purchases? Or how about if consumers use neuroscience to learn how to be truly happy staying at home and cultivating their gardens?

Sellers seem to have the biggest advantage when manipulation techniques are less than transparent. So neuroscience research into buyer behavior may be a classic prisoner’s dilemma problem. Various sellers may pursue such knowledge, hoping to get a leg up on the competition. The long-run result may be an evaporation of business advantage and an empowering of consumers.

Thanks to Kevin McCabe for the pointer on this issue, check out his neuroeconomics blog.


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