How shops use scent to encourage big spending

New Scientist has just made a popular article freely available online that focuses on how shops use scent to alter our buying behaviour.

The article looks at ‘scent marketing‘ – the practice of selecting an in-shop scent to encourage spending on a particular product line.

In one recent study, accepted for publication in the Journal of Business Research, Eric Spangenberg, a consumer psychologist and dean of the College of Business and Economics at Washington State University in Pullman, and his colleagues carried out an experiment in a local clothing store. They discovered that when “feminine scents”, like vanilla, were used, sales of women’s clothes doubled; as did men’s clothes when scents like rose maroc were diffused.

“Men don’t like to stick around when it smells feminine, and women don’t linger in a store if it smells masculine,” says Spangenberg, who led the research and has been studying the impact of ambient scents on consumers for more than a decade. Spangenberg says this most recent study underscores the importance of matching gender-preferred scents to the product. Both men and women browsed for longer and spent more money when a fragrance specific to their gender was used to scent the store atmosphere. “Scent marketing is a viable strategy that retailers should consider,” says Spangenberg. “But they really need to tailor the scent to the consumer.”

It’s not clear exactly how this works, but we know that smell has a particularly strong effect on emotional memory.

In fact, the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain’s olfactory system that takes information directly from the nose, is linked directly to the amygdala, a key emotion processing area.

Link to New Sci article ‘Recruiting smell for the hard sell’.

Frith free will froth

The letters page of this week’s New Scientist contains a lively debate about the neuroscience of free will, inspired by neuropsychologist Chris Frith’s recent article on the topic.

Frith’s article (sadly, closed-access) was discussing a classic experiment in neuroscience that seems to suggest that our brains generate an action before we’re consciously aware of making the choice to move, suggesting our experience of having complete conscious control over our actions may be mistaken:

Curiously, considering it is over 20 years old, a single experiment dominated our discussions. Reported in 1983 (and replicated variously) by Benjamin Libet at the University of California, San Francisco, the experiment is crucial because it seems to show we don’t have free will. Using an electroencephalogram, Libet and his colleagues monitored their subjects’ brains, telling them: “Lift your finger whenever you feel the urge to do so.” This is about as near as we get to free will in the lab.

It was already known that there is a detectable change in brain activity up to a second before you “spontaneously” lift your finger, but when did the urge occur in the mind? Amazingly, Libet found that his subjects’ change in brain activity occurred 300 milliseconds before they reported the urge to lift their fingers. This implies that, by measuring your brain activity, I can predict when you are going to have an urge to act. Apparently this simple but freely chosen decision is determined by the preceding brain activity. It is our brains that cause our actions. Our minds just come along for the ride.

In response, two of the correspondent’s question the appropriateness of the experimental task (is finger lifting a good example of free will?) and whether the result equally applies to the situation where we can stop an intended action.

Another draws parallels between our concept of free will and the influence of peer pressure and conformity, while two letters discuss how compatible free will is with a model of a physical deterministic universe.

In other words, if physics can, in principle, mathematically model the interaction of every atom to predict what will happen, how can we influence this process if we’re nothing more than a collection of atoms?

Finally, two other correspondents highlight some weakness in Frith’s ideas, and indeed many current theories of free will, that arise out of more fundamental problems in understanding fully the best way of linking mind- and brain-level theories.

Just reading the letters gives a good overview of some of the major problems when trying to understand both the concepts and science of conscious control of action.

Link to excellent Wikipedia page on free will.

2007-08-31 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Fantastic article in The Boston Globe on the neuroscience of gambling by Frontal Cortex author Jonah Lehrer.

PsyBlog has wonderful post on the neglected area of the psychology of courage.

Scientific American reports that ‘perfect pitch‘ – the ability to identify a musical note without reference to other notes on the scale – is partly genetic, and might be accounted for by a single gene. NPR has a radio segment on the same.

Psychiatrist David Olds writes in SciAm Observations and discusses whether ‘bad genes’ can be adaptive, or whether they always raise the risk for mental disorder.

BBC News reports that a clinical trial has found hypnosis to be effective in easing discomfort during breast cancer surgery.

OmniBrain finds sailing-close-to-the-wind humorous video from The Onion: World’s Oldest Neurosurgeon Turns 100.

BBC News reports on an Afghan community drug addiction clinic that treats opium addicted women.

Cognitive Daily recommends some fresh new psychology and neuroscience blogs.

Study tracks brain during different levels of fear, reports SciAm.

Suicide by ball-point pen. Retrospectacle finds a most remarkable brain scan.

Phantom erection after penis amputation. Neurophilosophy discovers a most remarkable case study.

Is Russia entering another dark age of psychiatry?

Recent Western press reports have indicated that the Russian psychiatric system might be experiencing a return to the ‘bad old days’ when it was used in part to suppress political dissidents.

President of the human-rights focused psychiatrists’ organisation the Independent Psychiatric Association of Russia (IPA), Dr Yuri Savenko, has kindly agreed to talk to Mind Hacks about the current situation.

Continue reading “Is Russia entering another dark age of psychiatry?”

Story time predicts child’s understanding of other minds

The BPS Research Digest has an intriguing post on a study that found that a mother’s use of verbs like ‘think’, ‘know’ and ‘remember’ when reading picture books to their children predicted the child’s later ability to understand other people’s mental states.

The researchers recorded mothers reading to their 3-6 year-old children, and tested each child’s ‘theory of mind‘ – the ability to infer other people’s beliefs, intentions and mental states.

A year later, the same procedure was repeated with the same mothers and children.

The researchers discovered that the more mothers used cognitive terms when telling the story (e.g. Mother says: “…this boy sees so many people and thinks, ‘I’ll pretend I don’t know what’s going on and I’ll push to the front of the queue'”) the better the child’s later ‘theory of mind’ abilities.

There’s more on the study over at the BPSRD. Importantly, it raises some compelling questions about how early interaction could affect the development of a child’s mental abilities.

Link to BPSRD post.

Gender differences in human orgasm

An interesting excerpt from a recent scientific paper entitled “Toward an understanding of the cerebral substrates of woman’s orgasm”, published in the August edition of Neuropsychologia:

Since the pioneering research of Kinsey and then of Masters and Johnson, there has been considerable discussion about the differences between female and male orgasm. While orgasms are physiologically the same in males and females, it has often been assumed that there are two distinct and easily distinguishable kinds of subjective experiences (Vance & Wagner, 1976).

This assumption is mostly based on the basic physical disparities between male and female orgasm concerning the orgasm duration. For example, it is agreed that a man’s orgasm is often more sudden and explosive in nature while a woman’s orgasm is more prolonged and less violent (Meston et al., 2004; Vance & Wagner, 1976).

However, a study investigating the basic differences between a man’s and a woman’s orgasm experience by submitting 48 written descriptions of orgasm (24 men and 24 women) to 70 judges, demonstrated that subjective experience of orgasm do not differ by gender (Vance & Wagner, 1976).

In this study, the judges (obstetrician-gynecologists, psychologists, and medical students) had to sex-identify the descriptions and to discover whether sex differences could be detected. The judges could not correctly identify the sex of the person describing an orgasm. Furthermore, male judges did no better than female judges and vice versa.

This suggests that men and women share common mental [cognitive] experiences during orgasm. Whether this is the case at the neurological level is a matter for current neuroimaging data.

An interesting paper which I shall try and write about more when I get the chance.

Link to abstract of scientific paper.