By Dr Lynda Shaw, neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist

Whilst neuroscience may be the new industry buzz word, businesses are still failing to obtain a true insight into what their customers think and feel and what their decision making processes.

Businesses are in reality in 2015 still just applying a cursory nod to the impact of neuroscience on retaining and attracting new customers.

Most businesses have a good business and marketing strategy in place, they know who their target audience is and are able to sell to them accordingly. The truth is though that many businesses fear change, partly and understandably because of the last few years of economic insecurity. However the knock on effect is many businesses have lost their mojo, are stuck in a holding pattern and are failing to really understand who their customer is today which is not helping our growth recovery. We must understand the neuroscience behind the decisions of our customers.


• Motivation to buy or invest is far more effective when using positive instead of negative, stimuli. We notice negative stimuli incredibly quickly in order to survive. In context of being a customer, of course it’s true that if we have a problem we want to fix it, therefore marketing with a negative tone does motivate us (e.g. take painkillers to stop a headache getting worse). The downside to this kind approach is that once our problem has gone away we will no longer buy. If however, we encourage people with feel-good stimuli such as looking forward to the future, people are far more likely to approach products and services with optimism so we repeat and buy again.

• Brand association and brand loyalty are increasingly being explained by consumer neuroscience. To understand emotional response to brands is a key to effective marketing. The selection and experience determines customer satisfaction and loyalty to the brand. This includes emotional processing and a great deal of cognitive processing such as memory, decision making and attention. This means that the prefrontal cortex and limbic system are busy evaluating and determining consumer choice.

• Using consumer research and neuroscience we can record brain activity with electrodes and advances in neural imaging technology making it possible to determine specific regions of the brain that are responsible for consumer behaviours. For example studies of emotion are crucial to the advertising industry because we know that emotion plays a significant role in our ability to remember an advertisement and in all our decisions.

• Consumers can be more influenced by the choices and decisions of their peers than their own internal standards. Many environmental factors influence the things we chose and the way we think. In particular a group or community we want to belong to can have a huge impact. Group membership not only supports us but also moulds our beliefs and preferences. This may be both at a conscious and unconscious level.


Understanding our customers is vital but similarly it is very important to truly understand our team/ employees.

• Our natural inclination is to stick with what we know and stay within our comfort zone. Having the ability to be open minded, using lateral thinking and pushing the boundaries every now and again can push your business into the realms of stratospheric growth versus treading water. Calculated risk taking can be excellent for business and when we are successful the feel good chemicals in the brain such as dopamine are secreted in abundance giving us a high to the point of wanting more, so we continue to seek out more risks. This is fine as long as we don’t take it too far. An increased delicious cocktail of dopamine, testosterone etc can push us to beyond sensible limits and we need to listen to our ‘gut feelings’. Research now supports the efficacy of gut feelings in monitoring our behaviour, as does our cognitive braking systems such as the prefrontal cortex.

• There is a lack of dynamic business leaders who inspire and drive their workforce to be their very best. Good managers need to ensure that people are happily engaged at work and that the company is harnessing their employees’ individual personalities, goals, needs and abilities to build a successful and intuitive working environment. When business leaders are employee focussed and communicate with them properly, the employee will feel valued and valid. This will empower them and alleviate any stressful situations thus calming down stress hormones such as cortisol. As a result, rather than people narrowing their attention to any perceived threat, which is causing the stress, we open ourselves up to broader thinking, better problem solving and greater creative thought.

• Leaders need to give their staff opportunities to develop and grow, and to lead by example. The brain loves to learn, but this invariably leads to change in a business environment, which the brain is resistant to. This is why development needs to be delivered in a positive way thus encouraging people to want to learn. Synapses in the brain grow and strengthen with new information, but we can overload the system if we deliver too much all at once. Research shows that we retain information better when learn in chunks and this is the case for learning something small like a telephone number or learning on a training course. Positive, upbeat delivery for half a day will allow the brain to assimilate and use the information well. Of course, the old saying “lessons are best caught not taught” means that leaders really do need to lead by example, it’s a subtle way of learning and will enhance all development opportunities that are implemented.

• How a leader reads and then reacts to a positive or negative workplace situation can have a huge effect on staff. Emotions in business – positive or negative - can be infectious. Negative situations are bound to occur, but it is how they are handled that will make the difference. Bad news needs to be delivered factually and then positive solutions discussed by everyone. People react well when given the whole picture, they will feel trusted and part of a team and far more likely to work together to improve matters. Equally, what the brain doesn’t know it makes up, so any negative office gossip is extremely harmful. Give the whole story, be brief with the negative facts and then work together to fix problems.

• Many of the key traits a leader needs; perception skills, problem solving and excellent communication skills all have their roots in cognitive and social psychology.

• We want our employees to believe anything is possible with the right work ethic and a yearning to learn. They also need to accept constructive criticism is simply a platform to learn from. The prefrontal cortex is partly responsible for the learning and processing of new information. Neurons in the prefrontal cortex hold existing information and knowledge whilst taking in new information to adapt and develop. Lessons are learnt and people feel great because they are progressing, becoming better informed and developing their expertise. Self-esteem improves thus strengthening mental health.

• If we have a fixed mind-set then we are not open to new talent, ideas and creativity.

Concepts and techniques derived from brain research and psychology can play a crucial role in improving individual and business performance. Making every effort to understand emotions to customer rationale means we also hold the keys that can potentially open many more doors and opportunities.