Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Brain waves can predict a hit, study finds

Readings more accurate than focus groups, researchers say

  • Print

To predict a large population's likely response to something -- a product, politician or policy -- political consultants, marketing gurus and advertising execs have long favoured the focus group. Ask a small segment of the target audience what it thinks about something, the formula goes. Tweak accordingly, and unleash on the public.

But what if a handful of subjects, a dozen or so electroencephalograms and plenty of electrical wiring could do a better job of identifying a potential hit (or winnowing out a rotten egg)? A new study finds listening to the average brain-wave activity of a small group of subjects produces a more accurate prediction of a large population's likely embrace of something than asking the same few subjects what they think.

In the latest research, the 2010 series première of the AMC show The Walking Dead (shown after its airing to youthful subjects who had not seen it) provided the experimental stimulus. The larger public's actual judgment on the show's curtain-raiser was gleaned not only by its Nielsen ratings but by a minute-to-minute tally of Twitter postings during the broadcast making reference to the show and its contents.

The researchers who conducted the study at City College of New York's department of biomedical engineering then explored whether the collective brain-activity patterns of a small group of subjects would predict a larger population's responses to Super Bowl advertisements from 2012 and 2013. Their report was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Asking subjects' opinions was of little value in predicting a hit or a flop. In addition to measuring their brain activity and devising a single measure of inter-subject synchrony, researchers asked subjects to rate the appeal of, or their level of engagement in, these televised offerings. The averaged ratings subjects gave were a poor prediction of whether the viewing nation would stay engaged in and remember The Walking Dead or the Super Bowl ads.

In fact, the answers subjects gave often didn't fit with the collective brain-wave patterns researchers observed and measured. In the case of some Super Bowl ads, the subjects' oral assessments suggested they were left cold by the televised stimulus they had just seen, while an average measure of their brain-wave patterns showed they had watched with keen interest. In other cases, subjects reported high engagement, on average, with an ad they were seeing. But the collective measure of their brain-activation patterns suggested they were unmoved by the content.

It turns out people in focus groups -- and those in one-on-one interviews with evaluators -- lie. Or they temper, hedge, prevaricate or offer an opinion they think will make them look good to the person asking, said the study's lead author, Jacek P. Dmochowski, now a research associate in Stanford University's department of psychology. This cognitive filtering makes their assessments -- even when they're averaged -- suspect, said Dmochowski, whose research was conducted under the supervision of senior author Lucas C. Parra of CCNY.

Brain waves, by contrast, do none of those things, suggested Dmochowski. Subjects' scalps were rigged with electrodes, allowing researchers to measure the minute-to-minute intensity of their brain activity. When alone in a room watching the series première of The Walking Dead, their patterns of brain activity suggested either they were drawn into the drama or their attention had wandered off to other pursuits.

When a large bloc of people pass collective judgment on, say, a new TV show, there is also no lying, no hedging and no tactful consideration: From the comfort of their couches, with remote-controls in hand and other activities competing for their time and attention, the collective of individuals that make up the public jury decide whether a show will be a hit or not, just as they decide whether a public initiative will be embraced or a politician will rally support.

When there was strong synchrony in the brain-activity patterns of a small group -- as few as 12 subjects watching The Walking Dead, for example -- the researchers believed they had distilled the signal that marks the stimulus as a hit. When brain-activation patterns varied widely across the small group of individuals -- as was seen with some Super Bowl ads that did not fare well in national surveys -- researchers discerned the failure signal.


-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2014 A2

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets fans decibel level through roof for first playoff game at MTS Centre

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press.  Local/Weather Standup- Catching rays. Prairie Dog stretches out at Fort Whyte Centre. Fort Whyte has a Prairie Dog enclosure with aprox. 20 dogs young and old. 060607.
  • A Canada goose makes takes flight on Wilkes Ave Friday afternoon- See Bryksa’s 30 Day goose a day challenge- Day 09- May 11, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Do you think the Jets will win Game 4 on Wednesday?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google