Science or sciencey [part 1]

Part 1 of a 4-part series examining what happens when science is used for marketing (using brain-training software as the central example).

[part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4]

[Full disclosure: I am a co-PI on federal grants that examine transfer of training from video games to cognitive performance. I am also a co-PI on a project sponsored by a cognitive training company (not Posit Science) to evaluate the effectiveness of their driver training software. My contribution to that project was to help design an alternative to their training task based on research on change detection. Neither I nor anyone in my laboratory receives any funding from the contract, and the project is run by another laboratory at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois. My own prediction for the study is that neither the training software nor our alternative program will enhance driving performance in a high fidelity driving simulator.]

Almost all of the programs that tout their ability to train your brain are limited in scope. Most train your ability to perform simple cognitive tasks by having you perform them repeatedly, often adapting the difficulty of the task over time to keep it challenging. Some determine which tasks you perform well and which need improvement and adjust the tasks based on your ongoing performance. The simplest ones, though, simply track how much you improve and inform you that such improvements have made increased the fitness of your brain. Such task-specific training effects can be really useful—if you want to enhance your ability to do Sudoku, by all means practice doing Sudoku. But what pitches for those programs regularly imply is that playing their videogame or using their training will enhance your ability to do other tasks that weren’t specifically trained. For example, this advertisement for Nintendo’s Brain Age implies that by using their game, you will be better able to remember your friend’s name when you meet him on the street.

The idea that playing games can improve your brain is pervasive, and it taps what Chris Chabris and I have called the “illusion of potential.” A common myth of the mind is that we have vast pools of untapped mental resources that can be released with relatively minimal effort. This common intuitive belief underlies the pervasive myth that we only use 10% of our brains, that listening to Mozart can increase our IQ [pdf], and even the belief that some people have “discovered” psychic abilities. We devote the last main chapter of The Invisible Gorilla to this belief and its ramifications, and we recently wrote a column for the NY Times discussing how popular self-help books like The Secret and The Power capitalize on this mistaken belief.

The marketing for some brain training programs taps into this illusion, promising a quick fix for what ails us. (A marketing strategy similar to no-sweat exercise programs or eat-what-you-want diet programs). Maybe you want to remember your friend’s name, to avoid forgetting where you parked your car, or to improve your driving. Hey! Play our game and we’ll lower the age of your brain and improve your life. People are ready to believe that simple interventions can lead to big effects, so such marketing claims effectively separate people from their hard-earned money by instilling hope of less-hard-earned self-improvement.

On occasion, brain training companies try to lend credibility to their products by referencing scientific evidence. Or, in the case of Nintendo, trotting out a certified “brain scientist” in the person of Japanese neuroscientist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, whose work “inspired” the exercises in their program. Appeals to science make the marketing more effective, even when the science does not entirely support the claims.

As scientists know, strong claims demand strong evidence, and strong evidence is alarmingly lacking from claims that brain training can improve real-world performance. The claims of these companies take advantage of the legitimacy granted by scientific backing without actually having the scientific backing necessary to make their strong claims about the real-world impact of their programs—their appeals to science make their claims sciencey, not scientific.

That’s why I was particularly surprised to run across this post by Peter Delahunt at Posit Science entitled, “DriveSharp: Proven to help keep you safe on the road.” Unlike many other brain training companies, Posit Science, founded by neuroscientist and National Academy of Science member Michael Merzenich, prides and markets itself on providing scientific backing for their training programs. They are among the few training companies that has at least some backing from the scientific literature for their claims of transfer of training (although most of the transfer they find is to other laboratory tasks rather than to real-world performance).

The blog post emphasizes this scientific credibility heavily in making the strong claim that “about 10 hours of DriveSharp training will improve your ability to spot potential hazards, react faster and reduce your risk of accidents.” Here’s how the post backs its claim:

“Posit Science prides itself on providing scientifically validated products. The technology contained in DriveSharp has been evaluated in multiple government funded clinical studies over more than 20 years…Completing the DriveSharp program is one of the best ways to help keep you safe on the road. It is based on sound scientific principles and has been extensively validated in numerous government funded studies. I strongly encourage you to try it out!”

The post represents one of the boldest claims I’ve seen for the direct transfer from training on a laboratory task to improvements in a real-world task like driving. But is the claim supported by the scientific evidence? Over the next few days, I will examine the claim and some of the research underlying it as a case study of the use of science in marketing.

Sources Cited:

Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. New York: Crown.

Chabris CF (1999). Prelude or requiem for the ‘Mozart effect’? Nature, 400 (6747) PMID: 10476958

4 comments to Science or Sciencey [part 1]

  • [...] Simons has a four-part series on the psychology behind using science as a marketing tool. Part I is here. Buyer [...]

  • [...] [afterward] By Daniel Simons, on October 27th, 2010 On 1 October 2010, I completed an extended series of posts examining the interplay between science and marketing. In the piece, I used a blog post on the [...]


    Our public radio station, KQED in San Francisco, recently conducted its pledge drive. Then, as in many times past, it has offered the Posit Science product as a pledge incentive.

    Repeatedly, they tout the claim that the program is “scientifically proven.”

    I respect Dr. Merzenich’s scientific accomplishments and his efforts in this area. But I have also heard him speak, and was shocked by his glaring omission of untreated ADHD’s adverse effect on driving and the dozens of studies showing that medication treatment mitigates driving deficits.

    What I’ve learned in 30 years as a print journalist and 10 years as an ADHD advocate is that science is riddled with narrow-but-deep specialties and very little cross-disciplinary knowledge. The competition for grants and “ego territory” only exacerbates the problem.

    I cannot imagine KQED ever offering a pledge-drive product related to ADHD, the science of which is backed up by mountains of evidence, but here it is accepting without question Posit Science’s claims.

    Gina Pera, author
    Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?

  • [...] Click Here To Read: Science or sciencey ….The illusion of potential Other Related Posts From Simoleon Sense:Post Completion Errors and How to Avoid Them [...]

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