In a study with implications for the advertising industry and public health organizations, UCLA neuroscientists have shown they can use brain scanning to predict whether people will use sunscreen during a one-week period even better than the people themselves can.
“There is a very long history within psychology of people not being very good judges of what they will actually do in a future situation,” said the study’s senior author, Matthew Lieberman, a UCLA professor of psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. “Many people ‘decide’ to do things but then don’t do them.”
The new study by Lieberman and lead author Emily Falk, who earned her doctorate in psychology from UCLA this month, shows that increased activity in a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex among individuals viewing and listening to public service announcement slides on the importance of using sunscreen strongly indicated that these people were more likely to increase their use of sunscreen the following week, even beyond the people’s own expectations.
“From this region of the brain, we can predict for about three-quarters of the people whether they will increase their use of sunscreen beyond what they say they will do,” Lieberman said. “If you just go by what people say they will do, you get fewer than half of the people accurately predicted, and using this brain region, we could do significantly better.”
“While most people’s self-reports are not very accurate, they do not realize their self-reports are wrong so often in predicting future behavior,” Falk said. “It is surprising to find out that some technique might be able to predict my own behavior better than I can. Yet the brain seems to reveal something important that we may not even realize.”