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.

Statistical self-defence over at

Readers of might be interested to read my review of the last chapter of Darrell Huff’s classic How To Lie With Statistics, over at my personal blog The last chapter gives Huff’s rules of thumb for interrogating statistics and I’ve provided some slim commentary on the workings of science, reason and whatnot. See you there!

Everywhere like such as

I just recorded an interview on psychology and the internet for ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind. Natasha Mitchell was completely charming, the questions informed and on target, but as for me, Miss South Carolina, I know how you feel.

Also, I’m off to the British Association of Cognitive Neuroscience conference for a couple of days, as I’ve kindly been asked to speak in the cognitive neuropsychiatry symposium in honour of the late great Prof Hadyn Ellis. Apologies if the updates are a bit patchy. Not sure how internet access is going to work out.

Brain scan entrepreneurs

The New York Times has an article on the burgeoning business of commercial fMRI brain scan services – that offer to do everything from detecting lies to managing pain.

fMRI is a type of scan that can map levels of oxygen-rich blood across the brain. As brain areas need more oxygen the harder they work, fMRI can produce a map of inferred activity.

fMRI is a relatively new technology. Although its now the most popular technique for tracking brain function, it only became widespread in the mid to late-1990s.

We’ve just got to the stage where commercial companies are beginning to sell fMRI-based services.

So far, the offerings are almost entirely based on experimental results that most scientists find interesting but preliminary, and to different degrees, the glitz of neuroscience, and impressive but scientifically meaningless publicity stunts.

This isn’t really a problem with the technology itself. It’s common for companies to sell their product while its still in development, but its worth bearing in mind when you hear the more outrageous claims for what it can do.

You might think that this business is so new and specialised as to be a target for easy-money investors, but it’s surprisingly cut-throat.

For example, VSM MedTech, makers of MEG brain scanners, seem to be running as a support only company after a serious nose dive.

However, this still leaves two other companies who can currently manufacture and install these multi-million pound devices.

The NYT article surveys the sorts of commercial brain scan services currently being offered, and has a critical commentary on some of the companies’ claims.

Link to NYT article ‘Mind Over Matter, With a Machine‚Äôs Help’ (via BB).

Encephalon 30 sends off Neurofuture

The 30th edition of the Encephalon psychology and neuroscience writing carnival has just hit the net – as the last ever post on brain blog Neurofuture.

Luckily, Neurofuture author Sandra is still going to be writing for Omni Brain, PsychCentral and print publications, so it’s less a departure and more a regrouping.

A couple of my favourites from this month’s edition include a post on the how hemispheres of the brain can be specialised for certain tasks, and a video discussion on ‘Is Consciousness Definable?’.

There’s more at the link below.

Link to Encephalon 30.

Girls with autism

The New York Times has an in-depth article on autism in girls, a topic largely neglected in the research literature owing to the fact that males are much more likely to be diagnosed with the condition.

It’s only recently that researchers have started to look in earnest into differences between boys and girls with autism.

Generally, the studies find that there are no major differences in the core aspects of autism between the sexes. But as a diagnosis of autism relies on these aspects, by definition, they’re going to be largely the same.

Studies looking at brain structure, cognitive abilities, and other types of everyday problem and emotional disturbance, have found some key differences though, and it seems they sometimes affect girls particularly negatively:

No doubt part of the problem for autistic girls is the rising level of social interaction that comes in middle school. Girls’ networks become intricate and demanding, and friendships often hinge on attention to feelings and lots of rapid and nuanced communication ‚Äî in person, by cellphone or Instant Messenger. No matter how much they want to connect, autistic girls are not good at empathy and conversation, and they find themselves locked out, seemingly even more than boys do. At the University of Texas Medical School, Katherine Loveland, a psychiatry professor, recently compared 700 autistic boys and 300 autistic girls and found that while the boys’ “abnormal communications” decreased as I.Q. scores rose, the girls’ did not. “Girls will have more trouble with social networks if they’re having greater difficulty with communication and language,” she says.

The article is a well-researched tour through some of the latest research on girls with autism, but also has some wonderful illustrations of how girls with autism experience the complex world of social interaction.

Link to NYT article ‘What Autistic Girls Are Made Of’.

Addicted to food?

Scientific American has an interview with neurobiology of addiction tsar Dr Nora Volkow discussing whether we can understand overeating as a form of addiction.

Volkow describes how the reward system, of which the dopamine rich mesolimbic pathway is particularly important, is involved in signalling desire and predicting pleasure.

Needless to say, it plays a key role in addiction. But as it’s involved whenever we do anything pleasurable, from taking drugs to eating to laughing, it’s also central to many non-pathological situations.

In fact, we presume it kicks in when we desire anything pleasurable, to any degree.

So it may be crucial to understand what happens in this pathway in people who have difficulties with over-eating.

Volkow mentions that people with obesity tend to have fewer D2 dopamine receptors in the striatum, perhaps suggesting more food is needed for the same pleasurable response, which could promote over-eating.

A similar thing has been found in addicted drug users, which raises the question, is obesity a ‘food addiction’?

Although not without controversy, drug addiction is usually described as having three main components (the ‘three Cs’): Compulsive use (wanting to do it again), loss of Control (feeling you can’t stop yourself), and continued use despite adverse Consequences (even when you know it’s damaging).

The difficulty is, normal eating fulfils all three criteria. We’re compelled to eat, stopping ourselves is incredibly difficult, and we all continue to eat things we know are bad for us, even when our health suffers.

Notably, Volkow is careful not to describe obesity as an addiction in the interview, although the magazine is quite happy to label it a ‘food addiction’.

Increasingly, we’re finding that problems labelled as separate in the diagnostic manuals can actually have some core features in common.

In this case, similar differences in the reward system in addiction and obesity seem to be important.

However, we always have to beware of over-simplifying complex problems.

Obesity, like high-blood pressure, is simple to define, but is caused by many different things acting together.

Highlighting overlaps can be incredibly powerful, but inappropriately lumping problems together often means missing the other factors which may be equally important.

Scientists are usually pretty good at this, typically discussing the similarities or talking about shared factors, but it’s worth looking out for when the message gets simplified when retold in the press.

Link to SciAm interview on obesity and addiction.

Read this, you sex machine: the birth of PR

I’ve just found a concise piece from NPR radio on Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who used his uncle’s ideas on the unconscious to transform advertising into its current form.

Bernays pretty much invented the idea that you can sell products, not by making their practical advantages known, but by associating them with the satisfaction of desires – to be sexy, successful, a good husband or wife, the need to feel safe, well-regarded and so on.

Every time you see razors sold as babe magnets, or perfume sold as booty dust, that’s Bernays’ ideas at work.

He also invented the idea that marketing was more than just adverts. It could also be presented as ‘education’ that had no direct connection with a product but made people more receptive to other marketing.

Almost any sponsored survey or research you see in press, especially if masquerading as science, is based on this idea.

For example, Pfizer fund a survey that says people over 40 are having the best sex. People over 40 not having great sex wonder what they could do about it.

Hey, that’s my favourite B-list celebrity! And he’s telling me that Pfizer sell a pill aimed at the over-40s that claims to improve my sex life. My problem solved, through the power of science!

Of course, it’s not just hard-on pills [note to self: that’s not a phrase I get to use often enough]. It’s now a tried and tested technique that has been used for selling everything from igloos to ideologies.

Indeed, Bernays was personally involved in selling political ideas as well as commercial products. Notably, in his book Propoganda, he argues that this form of manipulation is essential for managing the inherent chaos and destructive forces of society.

Film-maker Adam Curtis cited Bernays as one of the most influential people of the 20th century in his persuasive, if not slightly polemic, four-part series Century of the Self (available online: 1, 2, 3, 4). It contains many more examples of Bernays’ often ingenious PR campaigns.

The NPR piece is a short 10 minute introduction to Bernays’ life and work, and the site has a some additional audio clips of Bernays himself discussing his ideas.

Link to ‘Freud’s Nephew and the Origins of Public Relations’.
Parts one, two, three, four of Century of the Self.
Link to online Bernays exhibit from the Museum of Public Relations.

Pink slip, feeling blue

Ben Goldacre over at Bad Science has written a great analysis of a recent study that suggested we have the traditional ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ because of evolutionary differences in colour preference.

However, it seems not only are the study’s findings not strong enough to make an evolutionary claim, but that the ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ idea is relatively recent and hardly as traditional as we like to think.

The data itself is interesting if not a little unspectacular. Men and women from the UK showed different colour preference curves with men showing a preference for bluer shades over women.

In a sample of Chinese participants the preference was much less pronounced and peaked at more redder shades overall.

One of the curses of evolutionary psychology, the science that attempts to work out whether any of our psychological preferences are the result of natural or sexual selection, is that any sex difference is fodder for an evolutionary explanation.

Actually, we know there are definite differences in colour perception between men and women. There’s a great paper that summarises the scientific evidence which available online as a pdf.

There are sex-linked differences in specific genes that are linked to colour perception, which is why men are more likely to be colour blind and perhaps 1% of women may have four, rather than three, colour receptors in the retina.

But as Ben points out, simply finding a sex difference in colour preference really doesn’t tell us anything about genetics or evolution. It could easily just be an effect of culture or fashion.

Link to Bad Science on pink-blue study.
pdf of paper on genetics, sex differences and colour perception.