EEG In Consumer and Market Research


In This Article


> Overview

> EEG – A Consumer Brainwave

> We Know More About How People Think than They Do

> Different Brain Activities Point to Different Behaviors

> What EEG Measures: Brain Regions and their Functions

> EEG Monitors the Brain, Which is the First Step Towards Interpreting Its Signals

> Using EEG Puts You At the Front of the Marketing Crowd

> Conclusion: EEG Offers the Next Level of Consumer Understanding


In recent years, the number of



open to businesses who want to understand their


ers and shoppers has grown significantly. There

is a s

ometimes bewildering array of acronyms and

scientific approaches which may help you get better

business results but can feel daunting to navigate.

The good news is that this wide array of techniques

really do offer improved and exciting chances to shift


onsumer behavior in positive ways.


In recent years, the number of research methodologies open to businesses who want to understand their consumers and shoppers has grown significantly. There is a sometimes bewildering array of acronyms and scientific approaches which may help you get better business results but can feel daunting to navigate.

The good news is that this wide array of techniques really do offer improved and exciting chances to shift consumer behavior in positive ways.

EEG – A Consumer Brainwave

EEG stands for electroencephalography. At first glance, that might make it seem even less simple to understand.

However, if you have ever used the phrase “I have a brainwave,” you have already demonstrated an understanding of the basic principles of EEG, even if you did not know it at the time. When humans think, as when choosing between brands in-store, their brain is firing millions of tiny electrical impulses. Those impulses originate from different parts of the brain. When people talk about having a brainwave, they are referring to an actual physical phenomenon. Just as scientists can measure other types of waves like radio waves or light waves, these electrical brain impulses can be measured and tracked. Millions of little connections made in the brain each second lead to clusters of activity which ebb and flow depending on what the brain is doing.

That leads to benefits in medical fields, such as brain scans. However, in a more commercial context, it can also allow us to see the types of reactions consumers are having, while we aren’t literally getting inside their heads, we can understand at least some of what is going on in their mind. By monitoring activity in different parts of the brain, we can associate what type of reaction the consumer is having to different stimuli. So just as listening to a radio, you can tune into a specific station by focusing on a
particular part of the dial, EEG allows you to spot patterns of activity associated with different areas of the human mind.

We Know More About How People Think than They Do

A lot of what goes on in the human mind is at a subconscious level. When you run a focus group and ask a consumer what made them choose a particular toothpaste brand over another, they will often answer with an explanation of their conscious decision-making process. Sometimes they will not even manage that, instead telling you a version of their conscious process which they would like to believe, even if that was not what really happened. Both of these responses can be useful, although you may need to be careful what you do with them and how you treat the information.

Most brain activity is not conscious, however. There is a wealth of information lurking in the respondents’ subconscious mind which helps to shape their decisions and actions. They may choose a toothpaste based on subconscious associations they have with the color or shape of the packaging. The in-store environment may be making them feel more or less willing to spend money. The clothes they are wearing may exert an unknown effect on their choices. They may be making a connection between what they are seeing and what they have at home or saw on an online video. Some of these subconscious links may be easy to guess, but others may be hidden deep in the psyche of a consumer and impossible even for them to guess at, let alone an external observer.

These thoughts may influence the consumer, but they may not themselves be aware of them. By measuring what is going on in the mind regardless of whether it is conscious or subconscious, EEG can sometimes tell us more about what is shaping the decisions of a consumer or shopper than they themselves can tell us. However, the value of the information does not stop there. EEG is not just about what people think or do not think. It also provides important information about the speed of the thinking process, its intensity, its duration and how specific thoughts move through various areas of the brain. In the hands of a skilled neuroscientist, this can provide insight far beyond a simple emotional response headline.

As with other types of market research which involve quantitative data sets, EEG results are also able to be calibrated by comparing them to benchmark results in a relevant category, usage experience, user group or another such grouping.

Different Brain Activities Point to Different Behaviors

The brain is a famously complicated part of the human body, so you may be wondering how EEG can function to understand it. It can be helpful to bear in mind that the promise of EEG is not complete decoding of what is going on in people’s minds. Instead, it promises advances over what we can understand about what goes on in subjects’ brains over other research methodologies.

Over recent decades, scientists have made many advances in understanding which parts of the brain are connected to certain types of feeling. For example, the anxiety and fear one may feel about a potentially unsafe situation are seen in parts of our brain which have passed to us from reptilian predecessors, such as the amygdala. Positive emotions such as excitement and happiness operate in the same part of the brain. Problem-solving operates in a different part of the brain called the cerebral cortex – you may even have heard people describe a particular approach to problem-solving as “left brain” or “right brain, which is indicative of this.

This mapping of different activity areas allows brain sensors to detect which parts of the mind are active in a given moment. From there, it is possible to speculate as to how people are feeling, or what is motivating them. Brain waves originating from different parts of the brain that can be read by sensors on the scalp are correlated with different emotions. However, with the right data set and careful analysis, it is possible to use the existing body of scientific research to draw some compelling insights about what is going on in a mind.

What EEG Measures: Brain Regions and their Functions

With EEG, you can obtain insights into how the brain works, which brain areas are active and how they interact. But how exactly are these signals generated?

Brain Regions and Their Functions 

The human brain is the main organ of the human central nervous system (CNS).

1.  The Brain Stem is the lover and the oldest part of the brain, comprising the midbrain, pons and medulla. Often called the reptilian brain, it controls autonomic body processes such as heartbeat, breathing, bladder fuction and sense of equilibrium.

2. The Limbic System is often referred to as the emotional brain. It is buried deep within the brain and constitutes an evolutionarily very old structure. The limbic system plays a central role in arousing fight-or-flight situations, such as job interviews, Black Friday shopping trips or dates with your future husband or wife.

3. The Cerebellum or “little brain“ has two hemispheres which have highly folded surfaces. The cerebellum is responsible for regulation and control of fine movements, posture and balance. The cerebellum holds approximately 80% of all brain neurons.

4. The Cerebrum or cortex is the forward-most portion and largest part of the human brain. It is generally associated with higher brain functions such as conscious thought, action selection and control. The cerebrum consists of two hemispheres which are not directly connected. Right and left hemisphere instead communicate indirectly through long-range connections via thalamus and other cerebellar structures.

The cerebral cortex is further divided into four sections, the lobes. While there are right and left counterparts for each lobe, there’s subtle differences between the hemispheres. Sometimes the right hemisphere is associated with creativity and
imagination, while the left hemisphere is associated with logical abilities such as numerical and spatial cognition.

However, this association is phasing out as scientific research is coming up with more intricate imaging technologies and analysis techniques, which allow for deeper insights than ever before.
Yet, a basic division is still made between 4 lobes: Occipital, temporal, parietal, and frontal.

Neural Activation and Electrical Fields 

The brain consists of hundreds of thousands of cells, so-called neurons. In fact, there are about 100 billion neurons in the human brain, which are all heavily interconnected.

Neurons typically consist of a cell body and one or more dendrites which all end at synapses. Synapses act as gateways of inhibitory or excitatory activity between neurons. This means that synapses propagate information impulses across neurons (excitatory) or prevent the passage of information from one neuron to the next (inhibitory).

The synaptic transmission is triggered by the release of neurotransmitters (dopamine, epinephrine, acetylcholine, etc.), which causes a voltage change across the cell membrane. In other words: Any synaptic activity generates a subtle electrical field, which is also called postsynaptic potential (post = behind). Postsynaptic potentials typically last tens to hundreds of millisecond

EEG Monitors the Brain, Which is the First Step Towards Interpreting Its Signals

EEG utilizes a headset with sensors spread over certain sections of the head. The headset is simple to fit and reasonably comfortable for the wearer.

By gathering information about the different impulses recorded at the various locations in a particular time, it can offer us a map of brain activity in real time. This brain activity map can then be analyzed to draw interpretations as to what responses were generated in response to different stimuli.

If you have seen a video of a virtual reality glove, it is a bit like that – a wearable technology sends information to a computer, which analyses it in real time and provides interpretation.

EEG typically should be conducted in a controlled environment. Any noise or other variable will create an artefact and it can be difficult to separate and disruptions in the environment from a real reaction. The easiest environment in which to conduct such research is typically a lab. EEG can be effectively used to measure the appeal of different advertising, digital communications, store environments or other design changes.

As with any consumer research, it can be interesting for clients to observe the research in real time and draw their own conclusions about what is happening. This can be useful in some ways, but unlike a home visit or an in-depth interview, the results of EEG work are not necessarily immediately apparent to a marketer or insight manager. So while attending the EEG session is indeed possible, in the post-research debrief there will be more reliance on the interpretation than you may be used to in some qualitative research techniques.

EEG Is High Tech, But It’s Not Daunting to Organize 

So far you may be thinking that EEG sounds as if it can offer some benefits, but is quite an advanced methodology.

It is true that monitoring brain activity and then using a computer to analyze it is advanced and scientific. However, that does not mean that it should be cost prohibitive. In fact, once you or a supplier has the EEG equipment and a specialist who is trained to use it, the logistics of organizing EEG research are relatively simple. It need not be expensive, nor is it particularly time-consuming.

You will have gathered from this article that EEG can generate an understanding of where a user’s brain activity is focused but does not directly create insights as to what that means. So to get the most from EEG, it is helpful to work with an expert who has training and experience in interpreting the output. For example, the part of the brain which governs emotions will be triggered whether the user likes, loves or adores a piece of advertising. Just as map reading is a skill reading those differences into the raw output from EEG is something best suited to an expert who has been trained to do that.


EEG Supplements rather than Replaces other Research Techniques

EEG is one of many research techniques. It can be confusing to sort out which technique may be best for what purpose. However, if you want to maximize your return on spend, it is essential to understand how to best use EEG.

Every case is different. In broad terms, the primary added value of EEG is in helping to explain things which you are already aware exist. So usually, EEG is not used as a standalone technique. Preferably, it will be used to drill down for more information on areas which other research methodologies have already alerted you to as possible areas of interest.

For example, you may have commissioned some advertising options and want to test their efficacy with target consumers. Doing EEG testing with consumers while they look at the advertising will help you assess their reaction. While a different technique like eye tracking can help you learn where consumers look and do not look, EEG moves beyond the “what” to the “why” by helping you see what sort of brain activity is used at these stages, allowing you to formulate hypotheses as to what is shaping the consumers’ thought processes.
Here is an example of EEG in action combined with other research approaches.

Using EEG Puts You At the Front of the Marketing Crowd

EEG is a proven technology and is already being put to use by a lot of leading product manufacturers and service providers. That makes this an exciting time to look into EEG and what it can do for a given business. While it is still an emerging technique rather than a mainstream methodology, there is a competitive advantage to using it when other companies in your field have not yet started to explore EEG in depth.

Getting into EEG now could offer a competitive advantage in your field as your organization can begin to create norms and benchmarks for future advertising or other testing. Additionally, it allows you to get to grips with an emerging technology whose impact in marketing and marketing research looks set to grow in coming years.

Conclusion: EEG Offers the Next Level
of Consumer Understanding

This article has given an overview of what EEG can do and how it works. Although the science involved may sound intimidating, the basics of how it works are intuitive and build on decades of scientific research. EEG allows you to draw firmer interpretations than you otherwise can on why some reactions you observe from consumers and shoppers are what they are. It is a valuable addition to the toolkit of any serious marketer or consumer insights manager.

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