Using brain scans to price coffee

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Starbucks barrista
How much would you be willing to pay for a cup of coffee from Starbucks? It might be more than you actually predict!

Imagine walking into a store where there were no price tags. In their place were tiny scanners that measured brain waves in order to judge how much money you’d be willing to spend. Would that seem like a smart business move, or an unfair way to rob customers? Well, regardless of what you think, neurobiologist Kai-Markus Müller is developing a technique to do just that!

He believes that many companies – such as the popular coffee store Starbucks – really have no idea what to do when it comes to prices. “Everyone thinks that they’ve truly figured out how to sell a relatively inexpensive product for a lot of money,” he said. “But the odd thing is that even this company doesn’t understand it.” Why does he say this? Müller is certain that customers would be willing to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for an expensive product.

What?! It seems to me that people want to do whatever possible to save money, not spend more! What is Müller thinking? Well, he ran two clever experiments to prove his point. In the first one, participants viewed pictures of a cup of coffee with different prices. At the same time, their heads were hooked up to a brain scanner to measure the different waves. What Müller found was that when the coffee was priced way too high or too low, they were put off by the picture. “When the brain was expected to process unexpected and disproportionate prices, feelings of shock, doubt and astonishment manifested themselves,” Müller reports. However, when the prices were somewhere in between, including nearly double the value, the participants were okay!

Well, that had to be because the prices were selected ahead of time, right? I’m sure it’d be a different story if the volunteers could pick their own price. Actually, no! In his second experiment, Müller rigged a coffee vending machine so that participants could pay whatever the heck they wanted. Instead of paying a penny (like I would), they spend about $0.95!

“A study like this has never been done before, even though scientists have been studying brain waves for decades,” says Müller. He hopes his results will be incorporated into fair pricing schemes where companies don’t lose money and customers don’t feel cheated.

Images courtesy of Starbucks Facebook.