The Brain Reward System (BRS) is an amazing group of neural structures that are commonly known to be responsible for our desire and craving for a reward (incentive salience) and positive emotions involving pleasure, such as ecstasy, joy and euphoria. It is intrinsically linked with motivational processes and has been a key area of focus in academic consumer neuroscience research.
The main areas of the brain involved are the ventral striatum (VS), medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the nucleus accumbens. Various systematic reviews and met-analyses studies have been conducted in the neurosciences and consumer neuroscience spaces, which point consistently to this network as an important contributor in the consumer decision making process.
But is our understanding of the BRS incorrect?
Recently new research has found that our current understanding of how this reward system affects our decision-making may not be wholly correct.
For example, it is clear now that this system does not only function as a feel good system in the brain and doesn't just relate to positive reward or positive emotional outcomes in decision making.
It has also been discovered how the BRS plays an important role in motivation and learning in decision execution, and not just simply in terms of reward functioning.
So what is the correct understanding?
Seeing the BRS as primarily a reward system may be far too simple an explanation of it's role in the consumers decision-making process. It is now seen as playing a significant role in how new behaviours are learned that are aimed at reducing unwanted future experiences (consumer experiences).
Dopamine used to be thought of purely as a pleasure molecule. It is very much involved in pleasure, but not just pleasure. A new study has found that it is also involved in reward and learning in painful emotional experiences. When an individual is in pain or responding to fear, we see dopamine activations in the brain, which aids in allowing an individual to learn that that experience is one to be avoided in the future.
The BRS is not just about making you feel good. It also reinforces negative experiences through the dopamine reinforcement of fear, whereby you could be rewarded for avoiding a dangerous situation. We see activations in the ventral striatum (VS) when this occurs.
This has been seen in fear elicitation studies where the amygdala also activates (when you are rewarded for behaviours and cognitions that help an individual escape fearful or painful experiences).
It is important for marketers to understand this system and it's related terminology (the various brain structures), as this brain system model is important in understanding consumer decision making.
As the field of neuroscience grows and matures further, we are likely to see better understandings of how additional brain regions contribute to the decision making of the consumer.