Believing is seeing

In his book, the Believing Brain, Michael Shermer spends several hundred pages exploring just how powerful beliefs are in forming our view of the world. Beliefs impact not just what we think, but it literally filters what we see and do. And, once in place, beliefs tend to be stubbornly unshakeable. We will go to great extents to defend our beliefs with rationalizations that are often totally or partially fabricated. As Shermer says, “Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.”

In the world of consumerism, this becomes important in any number of ways. For one, we have beliefs about brands, both positive beliefs and negative ones. And, as previous neuro-research has shown, those beliefs can dramatically alter how we sense the world. In a study at Baylor University, Dr. Read Montague found that the reason Coke devotees are so loyal has almost nothing to do with the actual taste and much more to do with the Coke brand and what it says about them as people. It’s not the taste of Coke we love; it’s the idea of Coke.

A few weeks ago, I saw a press release from another study that takes this concept even further. The implications for understanding consumer decision-making are dramatic. In the study, Ming Hsu from the University of California, Berkeley, conducted an fMRI test of individuals participating in negotiation game where they competed against each other to find the optimal bidding strategy in a multi-strategy economic investment game. As they made decisions based on the actions of their opponents, the parts of the brain that were firing were recorded.

Games of this sort require that the participants learn from events and adjust their strategies according. Here’s an excerpt from the media release:

The researchers focused on two types of learning processes. So-called “reinforced-based learning” (RL) operates through trial and error. In contrast, more sophisticated “belief-based learning” requires decision-makers to anticipate and respond to the actions of others. The researchers computed the areas of the brain where activity tracks these two types of learning. In addition, they discovered that the prefrontal cortex is an area that processes learning about others’ beliefs. The same area also predicts an individual’s propensity to engage in either belief learning or simply RL.”

This is interesting. Reinforced learning is completely reactive in nature. It’s learning after the fact. But if that was the only way we learned, we wouldn’t survive long. So the brain needs to adapt a proactive learning framework, and that framework relies on beliefs as it’s primary construct. We act based on what we believe the best outcome will be, and alter as necessary based on the success or failure of our decisions. Now, if we were purely rational and empirical in the way we form those beliefs, this would seem to be logical way to live our lives. But, as we’ve seen, our beliefs are often anything but rational. They are usually formed with little thought or input, and once formed, tend to resolutely remain in place, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: 55% of Americans believe in angels, 39% believe in evolution, 36% believe in global warming and 34% believe in ghosts. I’ll leave it you to decide which of those stats you find most troubling.

The other note in the above excerpt that’s interesting is where this belief mechanism sits in the brain – the prefrontal cortex. This, by the way, was the same area of the brain that lit up in Montague’s test when his subjects knew they were drinking Coke. It’s the one part of the brain that really makes us who we are – quite literally, in fact.

Even in something as fleeting and supposedly unemotional as using a search engine, I’ve seen first hand the powerful impact a strong brand belief can have. It physically alters what we see on the page of results. We’re just getting preliminary results from our own neuro-scanning study, done with Simon Fraser University, and it appears that looking for a favored brand impacts how quickly we can find relevant information, how much time we spend looking at it (counter intuitively, we actually spend less time engaging with favored brands) and how easily distracted we are by other information on the page.

Truly, in consumerism, as in all areas of our lives, our beliefs determine how we see and sense the world around us.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider May 10, 2012