Other people’s brainwaves can predict what we want to watch

Scientists have known for a long time that certain areas of our brains light up when we’re enjoying what we’re watching. But researchers from the City College of New York and Georgia Tech wanted to find out if they could use the reactions of a small group of people to predict how millions more would react to TV shows and ads. And it turns out, they could.

They recruited 16 people and showed them episodes of The Walking Dead and advertisements from the 2012 and 2013 Super Bowls (when a lot of American companies premiere new ads, or make special versions for the 100 million-plus audience). While the subjects watched, electrodes attached to their heads monitored their brain activity. This was then compared to the popularity of what they’d watched using Twitter data and USA Today’s annual Super Bowl poll of people’s favourite ads.

They found that they could predict the popularity of The Walking Dead episodes with 40% accuracy compared to Twitter and 60% accuracy compared to Nielsen ratings (which measure how many people watched a show, although this is also extrapolated from a smaller number of people whose TVs are fitted with a monitoring device).

Even better, the subjects’ responses to the Super Bowl ads predicted the larger audience response with 90% accuracy – the one that made their brains light up the most (unsurprisingly, considering it involved beer and puppies) was voted that year’s second-best, and the one that they liked least was rated horribly.

Researchers also discovered that when people are enjoying what they’re watching, they concentrate more, and that the enjoyment of a video or TV show is enhanced when you’re sharing the experience – people’s brains responded in sync when they were engaged with what they were watching. But when they were bored, no amount of other people’s positive brainwaves could pep them up.

The scientists say that monitoring brain activity is more accurate than traditional methods like asking people what they enjoy, because people’s ability to assess enjoyment is influenced by their own expectations and social pressures. They suggest that their results could help in future with the diagnosis of ADD or other neurological disorders, or to estimate how effective educational videos will be.

Which is all very worthy, but I think we all know that as soon as Hollywood execs get their hands on this research, they’ll be abandoning the traditional model of test screenings of their movies (with an audience questionnaire at the end) in favour of a small group of people and a large pile of electrodes.

Image via Wonderlane’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley