Picture this: A pilot is in the cockpit of a fighter jet, pressing buttons and switching levers. As the propellers fire up, there’s an audible whir and you can hear the increase of power. The jet blasts down a runway and takes off into the sky at record speed. This is neuromarketing stimulation.

Gets your heart pumping and your palms sweaty, doesn’t it? Now, picture the scenario again, only this time, each frame is juxtaposed against the driver of a car having the same experience. Does it change your opinion on the power and speed of that car?

Neuromarketing Predicts Consumer Behavior

Conventional psychology says that it does. Neuromarketing—the study by which neuroscience is used to predict consumer behavior—is the evil twin of neurolearning. While we employ neurolearning as a way to increase engagement and recall in learners, neuromarketing uses the same science to make you want something you didn’t even know you wanted. After seeing a commercial about a car with fighter jet tendencies, you have a pleasure response when you think about that car. Now, it’s not just a commercial, but a pathway to an experience and emotional connection. You now have a more favorable response to that car brand and you might even find yourself lusting after the type of experience you saw as part of the thrilling commercial.

Frito-Lay’s Ad Discovery

It doesn’t even have to be a big ticket item, for neuromarketing to work, either. In 2009, snack food company Frito-Lay monitored brain activity when subjects consumed their Cheetos product. The results were surprising: Something about the ubiquitous cheese dust that was omnipresent on subjects’ fingers lit up the pleasure centers in their brain. It was hypothesized that the messy aspect of the snack—the inherent “naughtiness” of eating something both messy and unhealthy—was the very aspect of Cheetos that consumers enjoyed the most. The result was a commercial campaign made up of troublemakers making their marks in a flurry of cheese-dusted fingerprints. That campaign—and the research firm involved—received the 2009 Grand Ogilvy Award from the Advertising Research Foundation.

Neuroscience, Neuromarketing, and eLearning

So, why should those in the eLearning space be concerned with fast cars, messy snacks, and neuromarketing? It’s a clear indication of how one branch of neuroscience can be adapted to suit different needs. While neuromarketing uses neuroscience to create ads and experiences that entice consumers to make subconscious decisions and buy a specific product, the same science can be used to help learners become more engaged and have better recall.

If you know, for example, that getting an answer right lights up the same pleasure centers in the brain as a handful of Cheetos, you know that introducing scoring and ranking capabilities into your eLearning could help learners stay the course. If you understand that creating an emotional connection helps strengthen long-term memory, you can make learning more relevant to each individual learner.

The Ethics

It’s the tale of two sciences: One, which plays on your subconscious desires for pleasure, and the other which utilizes methods to help learners obtain a better outcome. Whether you’re selling Cheetos or trying to help employees remember protocol better, the method is surprisingly similar. The trick is knowing how to use neuroscience as a force for good—instead of a stealthy way to get someone to buy a fast car.