Berns, G. and Moore, S. (2012). A neural predictor of cultural popularity. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22 (1), pp.154-160.
The current approaches to predicting popularity rely on standard marketing strategies such as focus groups and questionnaires. The purpose of the paper was to test whether it is possible for functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to forecast the popularity of music (cultural popularity). Past research had suggested that “activity in reward-related regions of the brain, notably the orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum is predictive of future purchasing decisions of the individuals who are scanned.” However, it had not been clear whether this activity in the brain of individuals can correlate to purchasing decisions of a population.
Teenagers were first asked to rank 6 musical genres. The ranking of the genres showed that the participants had tastes similar to the national population. They listened to 20 songs from each of their top 3 genres. The songs were by unknown artists from myspace.com. What they heard was a 15-s clip including either the hook or chorus of the song. Each participant went through 60 trials, two-thirds of which included a display of popularity of the song among myspace.com users. The brain scan was taken before the display of popularity. The total of sales of the songs within the three years following the scans were compared to the initial scans or brain responses.
Although the individuals’ personal opinions on the likability of the songs did not correlate with the number of units sold, their brain responses did. The study found that the “final pathway linking the brain to album sales was mediated only thought the NACC. When these relationships were visualized, it became clear that “hit” songs did not result from a specific combination of NACC and OFC activity, but that “non-hits” were associated with a combination of both low OFC and low NACC activity.”
We should note that most of the songs that were heard did not go on to be ‘hits’, many genres were used and only 27 individuals were used, all teenagers who make up only 20% of music consumers.
OFC = Orbitofrontal cortex
NACC = ventral striatum/nucleus accumbens
This article left me wanting more, although the topic is very attention-grabbing, it lacked in depth explanations of the results from a neuroscience perspective. More background information was necessary regarding the functions of the orbitofrontal cortex, the ventral striatum and their connections. However, I understand that the paper’s aim was more to do with marketing than science.
The authors did address several reasons that may have caused the ratings not to go hand-in-hand with the brain scans but I still think that the brain’s ability to “know” which songs are “hits” regardless of the compatibility with likability is quite remarkable.