An Emory University experiment originally designed to see how peer pressure affects teenagers has also been found to accurately predict the success or failure of pop songs. “We have scientifically demonstrated that you can, to some extent, use neuroimaging in a group of people to predict cultural popularity,” boasted Emory’s Gregory Berns. His findings appear in The Journal of Consumer Psychology.
Five years ago, Berns’ lab selected 120 songs by relatively unknown musicians without recording contracts. Twenty-seven research subjects, aged 12 to 17, then listened to the songs while their neural reactions were recorded through functional magnetic resolution imaging (fMRI). The subjects were also asked to rate each song on a scale of one to five.
The data was originally collected to study how peer pressure affects teenagers’ opinions. The experiment used relatively unknown songs to try to ensure that the teens were hearing them for the first time. Three years later, while watching American Idol, Berns realized that one of those obscure songs – “Apologize” by One Republic – had become a hit.
Going back over the data, a comparative analysis revealed a statistically significant prediction rate for the popularity of the songs, as measured by their sales figures from 2007 to 2010. “When we plotted the data on a graph, we found a ‘sweet spot’ for sales of 20,000 units,” Berns explained. The brain responses could predict about one-third of the songs that would eventually go on to sell more than 20,000 units.
The data was even clearer for the flops: About 90 percent of the songs that drew a mostly weak response from the neural reward center of the teens went on to sell fewer than 20,000 units.
“It’s not quite a hit predictor,” Berns cautions, “but we did find a significant correlation between the brain responses in this group of adolescents and the number of songs that were ultimately sold.”
The results suggest it may be possible to use brain responses from a group of people to predict cultural phenomenon across a population – even in people who are not actually scanned.
Interestingly, when the research subjects were asked to rate the songs on a scale of one to five, their answers did not correlate with future sales of the songs. That result may be due to the complicated cognitive process involved in rating something, Berns speculates. “You have to stop and think, and your thoughts may be colored by whatever biases you have, and how you feel about revealing your preference. [But] you really can’t fake the brain responses while you’re listening to the song,” he adds. “That taps into a raw reaction.”
Berns is now turning his attention to weightier questions about human decision-making. Among his current projects is a study of sacred values, and their potential for triggering violent conflict.