As an industry built around making money by guessing what the general population wants to watch, Hollywood has been trying to get into our minds for years.
An experiment at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management may have cracked the best way to do this: By literally reading moviegoers’ brain waves.
In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, 122 moviegoers had their brains monitored with electroencephalogram (EEG) technology, in which electrical activity in the brain is read using electrodes attached to the scalp. While they were being observed in this way, they were then shown trailers for various movies, while scientists noted their engagement levels.
What the experiment showed is that the more engaged people were watching a trailer, the more money the resulting film tended to make at the box office.
The superhero movie X-Men: Days of Future Past earned the highest “neural similarity” score and, of the movie trailers shown, also grossed the most money in theaters. The film Mr. Peabody & Sherman meanwhile scored the lowest, and — in the real world — only managed to earn a fraction of the X-Men box office.
As neuroscience and business professor Moran Cerf told Digital Trends, the idea of measuring engagement in content in a person’s brain has historically been challenging because engagement can be measured in multiple ways.
“Our contribution was in the usage of multiple brains simultaneously to measure the content,” Cerf said. “Instead of looking at one brain and trying to interpret it, we said that the one thing that is common to engaging content is that it, well, engages the brain. And more so, it does that in a way that takes over our brains regardless of who we are and what state we are in. Our measure was testing how similar people’s brains are when they watched the content. What we saw is that the more similar the brains are when they view specific content, the more it is later remembered, the more people say it was relevant, engaging, that time passed rapidly for them, and the more they are interested in it.”
Of course, no one in Hollywood has presumably ever set out to make an un-engaging trailer but the work offers some fascinating insights. For instance, using the neural similarity method it was possible to discover peak moments of engagement and investigators found that if these moments take place in the first 16-21 seconds of a trailer, those movies have the greatest ticket sales when they arrive in theaters.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely that theaters are going to start handing out EEG readers alongside popcorn anytime soon, but Cerf noted that similar methodology has a wide range of use-cases.
“This technique now can be used for any type of content, to measure engagement in various types of modalities,” he said. “Since all we measure is similarity between brains, it actually doesn’t matter what the content is the brain processes.”