in Sport

January 22, 2020

How to read minds (or, peeking inside what’s really going on in your fans’ heads)

Inexpensive methods are available to bring neuroscience into the realm of day to day sport and entertainment research

Would you like to read people’s minds?

How about knowing what a fan, viewer or target audience for a piece of marketing is really feeling – even if they can’t quite express it?

These questions characterise why neuroscience exists – or at least the application of neuroscience tools for the purposes of marketing.

There are several reasons why we would want to read someone’s mind to improve marketing effectiveness. The person might be unwilling to tell us what they are really thinking and feeling, so traditional surveys or focus groups won’t unlock true insights. Or they might not even know themselves what they are thinking or feeling, or might not be able to express what they are thinking or feeling. How do we deal with such unreliable, or unwilling, witnesses?

Early gem traders knew something about the unwilling witness. They grew adept at understanding whether a prospective buyer liked the gems on offer. They knew that interesting information, or strongly emotional content – such as the presentation of precious gems – would cause the prospective buyer’s pupils to dilate. If they dilated the price would go up! In much the same way, one of the reasons professional Poker players cover their eyes is to shield competitors from picking up dilated pupils as they get the straight flush on the river card!

Much as the eyes lay bare our arousal and interest, the body also emanates a range of signals that reveal what it is feeling and what the brain is thinking. The face is splashed with emotion, some obvious, and some so fast it’s not often picked up by the naked eye.  Heart rate variations align with positive moods, while sweat from tiny sweat ducts, most evident on the fingers, is also a sign of arousal and interest.

The science of how these triggers, reactions and measurements relate to human behaviour and response is at the core of neuroscience.

Why do researchers care about neuroscience? The main tool in any researcher’s arsenal has been the humble survey question. The “question” has long been held as the key method to extract our information from consumers, in part due to its ease. And in many ways, it will continue to be the prime method. However, anyone familiar with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow will be aware there are essentially two systems in play in our brain (figuratively, not literally). System 1 is our automatic self, it’s our auto-pilot, it thinks fast – whereas System 2 is slow, it makes the brain stop and think, it’s effortful, and unfortunately our brain is lazy, so it tries to avoid this as much as possible!

What’s the relevance to “the question”? Traditional research questions tap System 2 thinking, yet much of our behaviour is actually driven by System 1. So, a core component of consumer research – surveys and questions – misses the emotional, intuitive and instant reactions that shape so much of our thinking and behaviour.

So, how is neuroscience applied to enhance understanding of what fans or consumers are really thinking?

The gold standard in understanding the brain is functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. This essentially provides us with a picture of the brain, in real time, that identifies the parts of it employed for given actions. An fMRI might show activation in the Amygdala in response to a stimulus (maybe an ad), and the more activation, the higher the likelihood of a subsequent action (buy the product, cease a behaviour), or it might demonstrate that a given stimulus (or message) has been committed to memory (through higher activation in the Hippocampus). Of course, this is only really possible if you have a spare $3million – yes, fMRI machines are expensive.

As a sports rights holder or a sponsor leveraging a sport to talk to potential customers, these questions are imperative. Fan engagement is increasingly hard, entertainment properties proliferate, so understanding both System 1 and 2 responses to your marketing takes on added importance; don’t work with only half the story!

Luckily, there are now cheaper, more scalable methods commonly used today that bring neuroscience into the realm of day to day marketing research.


  1. Perhaps the most scalable method is facial coding. There has been a mountain of work done in this area – and this technique has been used successfully in the area of Autism (see link for a great story – from 4mins in if you are short of time) – as well in the identification of early onset Parkinson’s. In marketing, its strength is measuring someone’s emotions second-by-second as they watch a stimulus. For example, if one has just produced a season-launching TVC aiming to arouse the emotions, we are in a great position not only to answer if emotions were aroused, but which ones and where in the creative it did. As a bonus, if the response to the TVC is poor, we can spot the moment that occurs, re-cut the ad to replace that scene!
  2. EEG has been around since the early 1930s – and while not nearly as expensive as fMRIs, tends to come with a cost (when done well). Don’t fall for the gamer-style 2-sensor devices – they are likely just measuring facial movement (fun fact: you need 16 sensors to identify if a person is brain dead).
  3. Eye-tracking is a wonderful accompaniment to any piece of research – and now we don’t need the expensive hardware – the humble webcam is up to 80% as accurate at a fraction of the cost. Eye-tracking is great for a number of applications, including testing different versions of websites to assess if one is easier to navigate to the sales form. Brands can make great use of this too, identifying – given a typical two- second dwell time – whether a viewer is likely to see the brand in time.
  4. And lastly, we have response time analysis: how fast someone responds to a question is meaningful information. Typically, we ask a question and we measure the number of people that respond to it (e.g “55% of people believe AMEX is innovative”). However, we can also measure how fast someone responded to that question – not typically something questionnaires capture. We might find that 55% of people also said VISA was innovative but did so ‘faster’ than AMEX. The speed of response captures how implicit that belief is – and is an important determinant of behaviour.


Neuroscience, and the tools it uses, has expanded beyond the direct brain measures of fMRI and EEG. We have access to highly detailed measures of response via the humble keyboard and webcam that allow us to tap the whole brain (System 1 and 2) – not just what is easy to collect. The growing arsenal of tools allows us to peek inside the mind like never before.  Anyone involved in the sport and entertainment space can and should make use of these tools to peak inside your fans’ heads and see what’s really going on.