Thursday, February 10, 2011

Gregory Berns & Sara E. Moore - A Neural Predictor of Cultural Popularity

Weird - how did anyone think up this study. And who would have guessed there would be a neural correlate (only a correlation, nothing more) of cultural popularity? How the brain responds to novel music (in this example) is correlated with future purchases and may predict cultural popularity of that artist.

So I can see music execs getting a couple of hundred people into neuroimaging machines to see who the Next Big Thing will be.

Full citation:
Berns, G. & Moore, S.E. (2010, Dec. 17). A neural predictor of cultural popularity. Available at SSRN:

Gregory Berns
Emory University

Sara E. Moore
Emory University

December 17, 2010

How can we predict popularity? Although superficially a trivial question, the desire for popularity consumes a great portion of the lives of many youths and adults. Being popular is a marker for social status, and consequently, would seem to confer a reproductive advantage in the evolution of the human species, thus explaining the importance of popularity to humans. Such importance extends to economic success as well because goods and services that are popular command higher prices. Here, we are interested in predicting cultural popularity – something that is popular in the broadest sense and appeals to a large number of individuals.Neuroeconomic research suggests that activity in reward-related regions of the brain, notably the orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum 1-4, is predictive of future purchasing decisions, but it is unknown whether the neural signals of a small group of individuals are predictive of the purchasing decisions of the population at large. For neuroimaging to be useful as a measure of widespread popularity, these neural responses would have to generalize to a much larger population that is not the direct subject of the brain imaging itself. Moreover, to be useful as a predictor, such a test would need to be done prospectively. Here, we test the possibility of using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to predict the relative popularity of a common good: music. We used fMRI to measure the brain responses of a focus group of adolescents while listening to songs of relatively unknown artists 5. As a measure of popularity, the sales of these songs were totaled for the three years following scanning, and brain responses were then correlated with these “future” earnings. Although subjective likability of the songs was not predictive of sales, activity within the ventral striatum was significantly correlated with the number of units sold. These results suggest that the neural responses to goods are not only predictive of purchase decisions for those individuals actually scanned, but such responses generalize to the population at large and may be used to predict cultural popularity.
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