Attention New York Times Readers: You Probably Do Not “Love” Your iPhone. Literally.

2 Oct

Over at Psychology Today, neuroscientist Benjamin Hayden has a nice critique of The New York Times “Most Emailed” op-ed “You Love Your iPhone. Literally” by author and branding consultant Martin Lindstrom. Hayden writes that the piece is so deeply flawed that it’s reason for The Society for Neuroscience to publish guidelines for the ethical practice of science journalism. His first recommendation would be (to quote the Ethics Section of Lindstrom’s own website):

“Align perception with reality. Your talents might very well lie in brilliantly creating convincing perceptions, but how do they stack up against the reality? If there’s a mismatch, either one must be adjusted for them to be in sync.”

So what’s the problem? Lindstrom’s data shows that when a person sees images of ringing iPhones, their brain’s insula–which is associated with love–lights up. And so, he concludes that people truly and deeply love their iPhones in a way similar to the way we love our partners. But, according to Hayden:

Lindstrom’s conclusions are basically the opposite of the truth. The primary function attributed to the insula is disgust, not love. Neuroimaging studies show that the insula is activated by disgusting smells and disgusting tastes (such as butyric acid, which makes vomit smell like it does). Your insula is activated when you see someone do something, like cheating, that you find morally opprobrious. It’s activated by seeing photos that people generally consider revolting, like freshly mutilated limbs. If seeing your iPhone reminds you of severed limbs, then your best career choice may be an anti-consumerist performance artist.

Insula is activated by pain. People with irritable bowel syndrome show enhanced activity in insula, especially when they are feeling pain associated with their disease (or imagining it). It’s also activated by gastric distension or full bladders, symptoms of needing to go to the bathroom. My advice: If a ringing iPhone makes you feel the urge to run to the bathroom, consider switching over to a Droid.

It’s weird that the New York Times didn’t fact check this op-ed. It’s not a secret. All this stuff is on the wikipedia page for the insula. You don’t even have to go to Pubmed! Perhaps the editors were blown away by Lindstrom’s cool book titles like “Buyology” and “Clicks, Bricks, and Brands,” and didn’t bother to check with anyone who has heard of the word insula before.

While the insula can be associated with positive emotions, it may also be activated by all sorts of stimuli. Activation to emotion is the wrong direction (called reverse inference). And practicing neuroscientists and scholarly journals no longer accept manuscripts that make this mistake. Apparently, neither should The New York Times.

3 Responses to “Attention New York Times Readers: You Probably Do Not “Love” Your iPhone. Literally.”

  1. Linda October 2, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    Oh my, oh my on both counts….
    the inaccuracy of a looked to newspaper for information, and
    what I always thought for myself,

  2. Martin Lindstrom October 4, 2011 at 9:06 am #

    My first foray into neuro-marketing research was for my New York Times bestseller Buyology: Truth and Lies about Why We Buy. For that book I teamed up with Neurosense, a leading independent neuro-marketing company that specializes in consumer research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) headed by Oxford University trained Gemma Calvert, BSc DPhil CPsychol FRSA and Neuro-Insight, a market research company that uses unique brain-imaging technology, called Steady-State Topography (SST), to measure how the brain responds to communications which is lead by Dr. Richard Silberstein, PhD. This was the single largest neuro-marketing study ever conducted—25x larger than any such study to date and cost more than seven million dollars to run.

    In the three-year effort scientists scanned the brains of over 2,000 people from all over the world as they were exposed to various marketing and advertising strategies including clever product placements, sneaky subliminal messages, iconic brand logos, shocking health and safety warnings, and provocative product packages. The purpose of all of this was to understand, quite successfully I may add, the key drivers behind why we make the purchasing decisions that we do.

    For the research that my recent Op-Ed column in the New York Times was based on I turned to Dr. David Hubbard, a board-certified neurologist and his company MindSign Neuro Marketing, an independently owned fMRI neuro-marketing company. I asked Dr. Hubbard and his team a simple question, “Are we addicted to our iPhones?” After analyzing the brains of 8 men and 8 women between the ages of 18-25 using fMRI technology, MindSign answered my question using standardized answering methods and completely reproducible results. The conclusion was that we are not addicted to our iPhones, we are in love with them.

    The thought provoking dialogue that has been generated from the article has been overwhelmingly positive and I look forward to the continued comments from professionals in the field, readers and fans.


    Martin Lindstrom

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  1. A Paixão pelo iPhone: Neuromarketing Feito às 3 Pancadas no NY Times | Dissonância Cognitiva - October 10, 2011

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