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Research that Gets Inside Your Head


April 2nd, 2018

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Angelika Dimoka’s job is to get inside your head.

As the director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at the Fox School of Business, Dimoka finds how you make the choices you do—and she does not need to ask you.

Instead, she looks to the human body for answers.

A trained biomedical engineer and neuroscientist, Dimoka came to the Fox School in 2008 to study how people make decisions. From air traffic controllers to victims of traumatic brain injuries to average consumers, Dimoka and her colleagues investigate—and predict—our everyday choices.

Getting inside your head

In 2008, Dimoka established the Center for Neural Decision Making, the first neuroscience center located within a business school, and currently the largest such center in the country.

“[The Center’s goal] is to provide a more objective understanding of the driving forces of a subject’s decision making,” says Dimoka, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Marketing. In the past, researchers have had to rely on self-reported data, asking consumers why they choose this product or made that decision. This, however, left room for error, as perhaps the consumer could not—or would not—divulge the true reason for their decision.

Today, with state-of-the-art tools like eye tracking machines, heart rate monitors, and MRI scanners, the Center’s research eliminates the subjective bias of decision-making research. “We don’t have to ask the subject anymore,” says Dimoka. “We can observe their physiological state.”

Dimoka and her colleagues, Vinod Venkatraman and Crystal Reeck, assistant professors of marketing, use these tools to study the body’s responses in experiments like the ability to recall print ads versus digital ads.

“With eye trackers, we can observe where the subject is looking at any given point,” says Dimoka, allowing the researcher to understand exactly what information the subject is taking in at what time. Heart rate monitors, skin conductors, and breathing monitors analyze the person’s emotional state—whether you sweat more, breath heavier, or have a faster heartbeat when making a decision.

Angelika Dimoka

What the brain reveals

The Center also has a new functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, brought to campus this fall in partnership with the College of Liberal Art’s Department of Psychology and with support from the National Science Foundation. “The fMRI scanners show us the brain’s functionality,” Dimoka says. “We can put people in the scanner and observe how their brains function when they make decisions.”

The areas of the brain that activate during different activities can reveal how consumers take in information and make decisions. Consider what happens when a person looks at a physical advertisement versus a digital advertisement. In a series of experiments funded by the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Postal Service, Dimoka and her colleagues studied subjects’ brains as they reviewed ads in both print and online formats.

“The area of the brain associated with memory, the hippocampus, showed higher levels of activation for ads that subjects had seen before in a physical format,” says Dimoka, “as opposed to digital ads.” By using the brain scanning tools, the researchers found that print is still sticky, even in today’s digital age.

The third phase of the experiments are currently underway. Dimoka says this new round will further investigate generational differences and brand awareness.

Are there any differences between the purchasing decisions of Millennials and Baby Boomers when looking at online versus print ads? “We did find some preliminary results [from earlier experiments] that were quite interesting,” Dimoka says, “and the opposite of what you would expect.” The full results will be published later this summer.

Real-world impact

The Center investigates all kinds of decision making—including consumer, financial, and privacy decisions—that can have real impact on average people and companies. The impact of their work extends from marketing to fields like management information systems and finance.

For example, Crystal Reeck, assistant professor of marketing, found that how you review your choices during the decision making process can impact your ability to be patient. She is currently working on a study that involves how people disclose private information.

Companies are also affected by the Center’s work. “By looking at the brain of how 30 subjects were responding,” says Dimoka, “we can predict how millions of consumers in the United States would decide.”

“That’s the magic, the power of these tools.”

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