What's going on inside people's heads when they see controversial food technologies?

That was the question I attempted to answer with several colleagues (John Cresip, Brad Cherry, Brandon McFadden, Laura Martin, and Amanda Bruce) in research that was just published in the journal Food Quality and Preference.

We put people in an fMRI machine and recorded their neural activations when they saw pictures of (or made choices between) milk jugs that had different prices and were labeled as being produced with (or without) added growth hormones or cloning.  

What did we find?

Our findings are consistent with the evidence that the dlPFC is involved in resolving tradeoffs among competing options in the process of making a choice. Because choices in the combined-tradeoff condition requires more working memory (as multiple attributes are compared) and because this condition explicitly required subjects to weigh the costs and benefits of the two alternatives, it is perhaps not surprising that greater activation was observed in the dlPFC than in the single-attribute choices in the price and technology conditions. Not only did we find differential dlPFC activations in different choice conditions, we also found that activation in this brain region predicted choice. Individuals who experienced greater activation in the right dlPFC in the technology condition, and who were thus perhaps weighing the benefits/costs of the technology, were less likely to choose the higher-priced non-hormone/non-cloned option in the combined-tradeoff condition.


Greater activation in the amygdala and insula when respondents were making choices in the price condition compared to choices in the combined-tradeoff condition might have resulted from adverse affective reactions to high prices and new technologies, although our present research cannot conclusively determine whether this is a causal relationship. In the price condition, the only difference between choice options was the price, and the prices ranged from $3.00 to $6.50, an increase of more than 100% from the lowest to the highest. Such a large price difference could be interpreted as a violation of a social norm or involve a fearful/painful/ threatening response, which, as just indicated, has been associated with activity in the amygdala and insula. Kahneman (2011, p. 296) argues that these particular brain responses to high prices are consistent with the behavioral-economic concept of loss aversion, in this case, a feeling that the seller is overcharging the buyer.

The punchline:

Estimates indicate that the best fitting model is one that included all types of data considered: demographics, psychometric scales, product attributes, and neural activations observed via fMRI. Overall, neuroimaging data adds significant predictive and explanatory power beyond the measures typically used in consumer research.