The Insula and The Accumbens: Driving Online Behavior

First published December 16, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

One of the more controversial applications of new neurological scanning technologies has been a quest by marketers for the mythical “buy button” in our brains. So far, no magical nook or cranny in our cranium has given marketers the ability to foist whatever crap they want on it, but a couple of parts of the brain have emerged as leading contenders for influencing buying behavior.

The Nucleus Accumbens: The Gas Pedal

The nucleus accumbens has been identified as the reward center of the brain. Although this is an oversimplification, it definitely plays a central role in our reward circuit. Neuroscanning studies show that the nucleus accumbens “lights up” when people think about things that have a reward attached: investments with big returns, buying a sports car or participating in favorite activities. Dopamine is released and the brain benefits from a natural high. Emotions are the drivers of human behavior — they move us to action (the name comes from the Latin movere, meaning “to move”). The reward circuit of the brain uses emotions to drive us towards rewards, an evolutionary pathway that improves our odds for passing along our genes.

In consumer behaviors, there are certain purchase decisions that fire the nucleus accumbens. Anything that promises some sort of emotional reward can trigger our reward circuits. We start envisioning what possession would be like: the taste of a meal, the thrill of a new car, the joy of a new home, the indulgence of a new pair of shoes. There is strong positive emotional engagement in these types of purchases.

The Anterior Insula: The Brake

But if our brain was only driven by reward, we would never say no. There needs to be some governing factor on the nucleus accumbens. Again, neuroscanning has identified a small section of the brain called the anterior insula as one of the structures serving this role.

If the nucleus accumbens could be called the reward center, the anterior insula could be called the Angst Center of our brains. The insula is a key part of our emotional braking system.  Through the release of noradrenaline and other neurochemicals, it creates the gnawing anxiety that causes us to slow down and tread carefully. In extreme cases, it can even evoke disgust. If the nucleus accumbens drives impulse purchasing, it’s the anterior insula that triggers buyer’s remorse.

The Balance Between the Two 

Again, at the risk of oversimplification, these two counteracting forces drive much of our consumer behavior. You can look at any purchase as the net result of the balance between them; a balancing of risk and reward, or in the academic jargon, prevention and promotion. High-reward and low-risk purchases will have a significantly different consumer behavior pattern than low-reward and high-risk purchases. Think about the difference between buying life insurance and a new pair of shoes. And because they have significantly different behavior profiles, the online interactions that result from these purchases will look quite different as well. In the next column, I’ll look at the four different purchase profiles (High Risk/High Reward, High Risk/Low Reward, Low Risk/High Reward and Low Risk, Low Reward) and look at how the online maps might look in each scenario.

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