Frontal Brain Asymmetry and Willingness to Pay
How do we decide how much we want to pay for products? What are the actual mechanisms at stake in the valuation and choice of products? In a recent study, the general asymmetric engagement of brain structures was found to be highly related to later product choice, and the price that consumers were willing to pay for them.
In recent years, studies in consumer neuroscience have provided new insights into the mechanisms of product evaluation and choice. In 2007, Knutson and colleagues showed that product desire was related to the engagement of deep basal ganglia responses during product viewing, which predicted subsequent product choice. Aversive responses to high prices were related to higher engagement of the insula, suggesting that this region is involved in aversion responses to undesired price levels. In a study by Ravaja et al. it was found that an asymmetric engagement of the frontal brain was related to product choice, but with no link to price choices.
Few studies have looked at the mechanisms underlying product value computation and consumers’ willingness to pay (WTP). The purpose of this study was to unravel the neural mechanisms of WTP calculation, and the idea that frontal asymmetry could be related to such choices.
In the study, sixteen healthy women (age mean ± std = 27.1 ± 8.2) were taken from a larger study sample dedicated to a compulsive buying study. None of the participants fulfilled the diagnostic criteria for compulsive buying or the pre-clinical condition of compensatory buying.
The participants were positioned in front of a screen and asked to look at products on a screen for three seconds. After each product presentation, they were asked to say how much they were willing to pay for the product by using a visual analog scale ranging from 0 to 2000 Danish Kroners (about 330 USD). Four product categories were used: shoes, bags, clothes, and FMCG products. The study was set up in such a way that participants were motivated to provide the WTP choices that best matched their true preferences.
To assess brain responses, we used a 14-channel electroencephalography (EEG) headset, and recorded eye-tracking with an eye-tracking bar under the screen. For each choice round, we calculated the frontal asymmetry in three frequency bands of brain activity: alpha, beta, and gamma.
Our overall assumption was that frontal brain asymmetry was related to WTP calculation when people looked at products. More specifically, we assumed that a stronger activity in the brain’s left relative to the right prefrontal cortex would be related to higher WTP choices. Based on prior research, we assumed that asymmetry in the alpha band would be related to WTP. In addition, since alpha is typically related to de-activation of the brain, we assumed that both beta and gamma would show an asymmetry relationship with WTP choices, since both frequency bands are considered among the “activity” bands of the brain.
Figure 1 The study setup, where participants first saw a product for 3 seconds and were then asked to tell how much they were willing to pay for the product (in Danish Kroner).
Figure 2 The findings of frontal asymmetry for the frequency bands alpha, beta and gamma. More positive scores for beta and gamma indicated that the left was more engaged than the right. Only the gamma asymmetry score was significantly related to WTP calculations.
Our results surprisingly showed that only frontal asymmetry in the gamma band was related to WTP calculations. No significant effects were found for asymmetry responses in the alpha or beta bands. This suggested that only asymmetry in the gamma band was related to the calculation of WTP for products.
In a second analysis, we looked at how asymmetry responses worked for different product categories. Here, the gamma frontal asymmetry showed a positive relationship for bags and shoes – higher left than right frontal gamma was related to higher WTP. Conversely, for FMCG products, there was a negative relationship – higher left than right frontal gamma was related to lower product WTP.
Finally, we looked at how the asymmetry responses developed over time, from initial product viewing to making the WTP response. Here, we found that the frontal gamma response became stronger over time. The asymmetry effect was significant already during the first second of product viewing, but in addition, the closer participants were to effectuating their choice, the stronger the difference in gamma activity in the left relative to the right prefrontal cortex. No such effect was found for the alpha or beta band asymmetry scores.
Our study sheds new light on the mechanisms underlying how products are evaluated. Prior studies have suggested that frontal asymmetry is related to motivation and choice. We wanted to test whether both standard alpha asymmetry as well as other frequencies would be related to product choice and WTP responses.
We found that only frontal asymmetry in the gamma band is related to product WTP, while alpha and beta are not. This effect was present even during one second of product viewing. This asymmetry response became stronger over time, suggesting that it is even more involved in effectuating product choice and valuation responses.
This article was originally published in the Neuromarketing Yearbook. Order your copy today