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Marketing is a fairly civilized partner dance—retailers compete to open our pocketbooks, and we shape their sales strategies by flexing our veto muscle and freedom of choice. That balance, however, could be shifting as marketers scramble to harness the power of neuroscience. Once they do—getting inside our brains to understand how and why we buy—they may convince us to part more readily with our cash.

Early research shows that when we consider buying something (a jar of peanut butter, for example), we're juggling the pros and cons from all kinds of perspectives (flavor, nutrition, cost). "It's as though you have multiple brains giving you their input, and you're standing in the center listening to what everyone has to say," explains Joshua Freedman, MD. His neuromarketing company, FKF Applied Research, uses fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures the brain's neural activity) to scan consumers' brains while they respond to different brands and advertisements (clients have included fast food, technology, and financial services companies). And according to their findings, one consideration seems to trump the rest: how the product will affect our social standing and the way others perceive us. (Do you want to be seen as a mother buying a family brand of peanut butter? A health lover who eats only all natural, organic?) "As you're making a purchasing decision," says Freedman, a neuropsychiatrist who is also on the clinical faculty at UCLA, "you're polling these opinions while mulling over who you are and what you represent in the context of how others see you—yes, even when you're buying peanut butter." So don't be surprised if suddenly you have to have a talking toothbrush, or a certain TV ad makes you drop everything and race to the store.

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