As you scroll through a website—say, TheAtlantic.com—you’re sending a lot of signals. Your eyes dart from headline to headline, bypassing a few before choosing which to read. Your brow furrows at one article. You laugh at a clever turn of phrase in another. Your face flushes in anger when you watch a charged video on an issue important to you. Usually, all these physical cues go nowhere other than the reflection of your computer screen. But now, businesses are hoping to game your attention by closely examining all these bodily responses.
The consulting firms that specialize in this research usually start by hooking focus-group participants up to research-grade neuroscience equipment as they browse a website or use an app. The devices offer highly specific biofeedback: Sensors analyze users’ gaze, their facial expressions, their skin cells, and even their brain waves. Consultants then produce reports with tailored recommendations on how their client might redesign the user experience to turn their ad, app, or website into the perfect attention trap.
Companies already have enormous insight into what users do online. Web-analytics tools detail what pages users click on and which sites refer them. Companies such as Facebook track users all over the web, whether they’re logged in or not. But the core conceit of neuromarketing is that biometric data is more honest and robust than traditional survey data or even the wealth of traffic-analytics options that are already out there. Survey respondents may lie, the argument goes, but biometrics don’t.