The Neuroscience of Fruit Salad and Chocolate Cake

This past month, our Neuromarketing Consultant, Trevor Thomas, continued his research into how we can help our clients increase their profits and sales.  Our marketing tactics are designed to help our clients experience continuous growth.  Understanding the science behind increasing their profits helps our teams get better and never be complacent.  Below are his findings.


The Neuroscience of Fruit Salad and Chocolate Cake –  Trevor ThomasEC Consulting, Inc.

How research on choice behavior applies to impulse marketing


Using a term often promoted by the popular press, there is nothing resembling a simple “buy button” in the brain. Instead, the brain recruits different brain processes during choice tasks. Some of these processes involve subcortical brain structures such as the striatum and the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Research suggests the specific function of these regions during a choice task is to control the impact of emotional decision making – i.e., executive control. Manipulating the ability of these prefrontal areas to regulate one’s emotion can have an impact on what and how people buy. For instance, research supports that music reduces cognitive control and has a positive influence on nonplanned purchasing decisions, perhaps explaining why we hear music playing in nearly every retail store we visit.

Earlier this year, I led a strategy meeting to explore how these ideas from consumer neuroscience apply to our proprietary marketing methodologies here at EC Consulting.

When our team came to my meeting that morning, they found a food tray with a selection of healthy and nonhealthy snacks sitting on the conference table. I told our account executives to choose between one of the two snack options, but not before memorizing either a two- or a seven-digit number. While our strategy team thought I was just being nice, my intentions were to replicate the findings of an experiment conducted in 1999. In this study, psychologist Baba Shiv examined how consumer decision making is influenced by automatically evoked task-induced affect and by cognitions that are generated in a more controlled manner on exposure to alternatives in a choice task. Across two experiments, participants chose between two alternatives: one (chocolate cake) associated with more intense positive affect but less favorable cognitions, compared to a second (fruit salad) associated with less favorable affect but more favorable cognitions. The purpose of this experiment was to examine the effects of spontaneously evoked affective reactions on consumers’ preferences in a binary choice task when the processing resources available during the decision-making task are high versus low.

One hundred and sixty-five undergraduate students were randomly assigned across the four conditions. The experiment was carried out in two different rooms. Participants were told that they would be asked to memorize a number on exiting the first room and recall it in the second room. Further, respondents were told that they would be provided with a choice of snacks for participating in the study. Before participants proceeded toward the food cart and to the second room, the processing-resources manipulation was carried out. One group of respondents was requested to memorize a seven-digit number (the low processing-resources condition) while another group was requested to memorize a two-digit number (high processing-resources condition). After respondents had picked up the ticket for their chosen snack, they proceeded to a second room, where they were given a booklet in which they were first asked to recall the number they had been asked to memorize.

In my meeting, most of the executives given seven digit numbers to memorize chose the unhealthy snack; those assigned two-digit numbers, however, seemed to more often choose the healthy snack – just like in Baba Shiv’s experiment. Findings from the experiment suggest that if processing resources are limited, spontaneously evoked affective reactions (i.e., impulse buying) rather than cognitions tend to have a greater impact on choice. As a result, the consumer is more likely to choose the alternative that is superior on the affective dimension but inferior on the cognitive dimension (e.g., chocolate cake). In contrast, when the availability of processing resources is high, cognitions related to the consequences of choosing the alternatives tend to have a bigger impact on choice compared to when the availability of these resources is low. As a result, the consumer is more likely to choose the alternative that is inferior on the affective dimension but superior on the cognitive dimension (e.g., fruit salad).

In other words, the results indicate that respondents who could allocate more processing resources to the task also experienced affective reactions arising from the chocolate cake but were better able to use their cognitions to avoid giving in to these affective reactions compared to respondents who were unable to allocate sufficient processing resources to the task. So how does this apply to what we do as marketing professionals? Well, it depends – are you selling fruit salad or chocolate cake?

If the purchasing decision we hope to elicit in the consumer is a logical one, based solely on objective characteristics of the product we’re marketing (i.e., lower price, better value), then this research suggests our approach should be a short and simple one. A campaign attempting to sell a product equivalent to the fruit salad should leave the PFC as untaxed as possible. In this case, executive control is our friend and will lead the consumer to make the purchasing decision that favors our product. However, if the opposite is true and the purchasing decision we desire for is a more emotional, affective reaction, then our campaign needs to somehow occupy the PFC like the seven digit number did in Baba Shiv’s experiment. If an advertisement somehow limits the availability of processing resources, a consumer will be more inclined to make an impulsive, nonplanned purchasing decision in favor of our product.

Integrating these and other findings from consumer neuroscience not only strengthens our more traditional approaches, but it also helps EC Consulting develop a unique set of proprietary methodologies that distinguish itself from other marketing and advertising consultancies in the area.


Citations: Shiv, B.; Fedorikhin, A. “Heart and Mind in Conflict: The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making” Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 26 (1999).


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