A group of researchers led by Stanford University neuroscientist Brian Knutson ran an experiment in 2007 to study how shoppers decide what to buy. I learned about their startling discoveries while researching my new book, Marketing for Scientists. 

Knutson’s team placed experimental subjects in front of a computer screen in an fMRI scanner and had them engage in a kind of online shopping simulation. The scanner showed that a brain region called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) lit up when the subjects saw enticing images of products for sale. Then another region called the insula would glow when the subjects saw high prices on the screen. The NAcc is a reward center. The insula is involved in processing pain, anger, and fear.

Remarkably, the experimenters found that they could predict whether the subjects would purchase a given product simply by comparing the relative activation of these centers....

This study got me thinking about how scientists make decisions when we are “shopping” among our peers for grant proposals to fund and young scientists to hire. What happens when you are sitting on a committee and you read a new funding proposal? At first, perhaps, you enjoy the stimulating new ideas and colorful figures. Then your thoughts may turn to matters related to your job security: could this research contradict my own findings? What will my colleagues think about my comments on this work?

We scientists often like to imagine that our decision-making is purely rational. But experiments like Knutson’s suggest that decision-making is essentially emotional. When we are deciding what research to support, I suspect we weigh emotional rewards and costs, just like the subjects in those studies.

This is where marketing, which is all about emotions, comes in. Marketing is the craft of better understanding and fulfilling people’s needs and desires. If scientists really do make decisions the same way Knutson’s experimental subjects did—NAcc vs. insula—then the ability to make an emotional appeal is absolutely necessary to succeed in science—a fundamental part of the scientific process.

So let me suggest three kinds of figures you can use for marketing your scientific project. You can use these figures when writing a paper, giving a job talk, or preparing a grant proposal—to help you appeal to the right parts of your colleagues’ emotional brains.

The first is what I call the “beautiful butterfly” figure: an image that is as eye-catching as possible, like the pictures on the cover of Nature or Scientific American. These images don’t need to communicate anything quantitative; they serve to stimulate your NAcc. As shown by another Stanford study exploring the gambling styles of men who had just been shown erotic images, people whose NAccs are stimulated tend to take risks, and might be primed to impulsively buy a magazine—or fund a new research group.

The second figure is the “family portrait.” These figures display the interconnected work of many research teams on one plot or diagram. The goal of the family portrait figure is to relax the insula. It shows something safe and familiar and conveys respect for the community. Maybe it even cites the work of someone on the review panel, appealing to his need for job security.

And finally every proposal needs a “Jenny Craig” figure. Like advertisements for a diet plan, these images compare and contrast the state of the art before and after the proposed work is completed. They illustrate precisely what the proposed work will achieve, so your customer can see what he or she is buying.

Marketing offers many other techniques scientists can use, tools like branding, positioning, and social networking. It applies to many aspects of a scientist’s career: recruiting students, courting policy-makers, addressing the press and the public. I believe scientists ought to harness every intellectual tool available to better shine in the current economic climate.

Do you buy the idea that scientists should study marketing? After your insula battles your NAcc, let me know what you decide.

Marc J. Kuchner is a staff scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and also a successful country music songwriter. You can e-mail him at Read an excerpt of Marketing for Scientists.

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