Mind the gap: Big data and our understanding of the mind

We are in the process of collecting a ton of data about people's behaviors. Where they go, what they do, how they use the Internet, when they sleep, when they eat, and what they tweet.

We are in the process of collecting a ton of data about people’s behaviors. Where they go, what they do, how they use the Internet, when they sleep, when they eat, and what they tweet.

This information is already so complex that most agreed at South by Southwest that we’re only scratching the surface in terms of understanding how to make use of it. The next big hurdle will be trying to understand, in real-time, cognitive data. It’s only with these two data sets combined – what people are doing and why they’re doing it – that we’ll have that complete profile of the consumer that will lead to the utopian vision for big data that I mentioned in my first post about SXSW.

The biggest danger, in the meantime, is thinking we know more than we do, and one panel in particular highlighted that our understanding of cognitive processes are still rudimentary.

Hoping to dispel some popular myths about neuro-marketing, a panel of neuroscientists participated in a discussion titled Engaged Brains: What Do We Really Know?

The group agreed that demonstrations that compare imagery of brains "lighting up" in response to certain stimuli means…nothing. One of the biggest brain myths is that certain tasks activate a part of the brain. In fact, one section of the brain is responsible for millions of tasks, and there are no conclusive findings on how the brain really works and why it responds to stimuli the way it does.

This could help to explain why the whole notion of "surprise and delight" experiential marketing may be fundamentally flawed. The premise is to catch consumers off-guard with something so amazing and fun that they immediately fall in love with a brand. But as the panel discussed, surprise needs to be treated carefully, because instead of creating a positive reaction, it could cause stress, instigating their fight-or-flight instinct.

In some instances, brands have purposefully played with fear, with the producers of Carrie and LG providing the most memorable and effective examples. It led many to dub 2013 as the year of "prankvertising" and "ExFEARiential," as was so eloquently parodied by John St. in its annual video. But even marketing campaigns that are designed to generate a positive response may cause stress to consumers and leave a lasting negative impression.

Big data will continue to grow, and as it grows, it will add cognitive insight that will complement the behavioral data. In the meantime, we need to be cautious about thinking we know more than we do, and not push too far with marketing that may create unintended consequences.

Tony Lederer is SVP of the Digital Innovation Group at Cohn & Wolfe.

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