Can brain waves predict a movie’s success better than surveys?

A better way to predict the commercial success of movies rather than conducting surveys among cinema-goers has been revealed with a new study in consumer neuroscience, conducted by researchers from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). The study finds that electrical activity in the brain, measured via electroencephalography (EEG), may be a more accurate way to predict box office success.

“Several decades of research have shown that many important mental processes occur below the surface of consciousness, leaving people very limited in their ability to predict their own future behaviour,” write authors Maarten Boksem and Ale Smidts , both from RSM. Their neuromarketing research is to be published in the Journal of Marketing Research. “This study suggests that neuroimaging technologies such as EEG can reveal information that is not obtainable through conventional marketing surveys.” Their study, Brain responses to movie-trailers predict individual preferences for movies and their population-wide commercial success, is already available online.

Can brain waves predict a movie’s success better than surveys? The authors sat participants in comfortable chairs in a darkened room in front of a TV with a surround-sound system. Participants were then attached to EEG machines through small electrodes on the scalp. These electrodes can measure the electrical impulses from the brain. Participants were asked to view 18 movie trailers – differing markedly in commercial success as measured by US box office results – in random order while their brain activity was recorded. After watching each trailer, the participants were asked to rate how much they liked the trailer they had just seen, and how much they would be willing to pay for a DVD of each film.

After watching all 18 trailers, study participants were presented with the 18 films on DVD. The authors asked viewers to sort the DVDs by preference, and participants were given the three DVDs they most preferred.

The study found that while EEG measurements and self-reported preferences were able to predict the participants’ individual choices (the DVDs they liked the best), it was only the EEG measurements that actually showed a strong relationship with consumer preferences at the population level, echoing box office results. That means that the EEG readings were notably more accurate in predicting the commercial success of the movies than the participants’ conscious statements.

“This study has shown that compared to traditional surveys, EEG measurements capture more accurate and complete information regarding what consumers will actually do. EEG tests are relatively cheap, and even a modest increase in ability to predict consumer choice is likely to be of immeasurable value to marketers,” conclude the authors – particularly because as many as three-quarters of all movies make a net loss during their run in cinemas.

The research addresses the limited amount of evidence connecting measurements of neural activity to the success of marketing actions. To be of real value, the measurement should significantly increase predictive power above and beyond conventional measures, say the researchers. The study used participants’ preferences and neural measurements in response to movie trailers to explore the potential of such measurements for providing insights into individuals’ preferences, as well as sales of cinema tickets in the population at large.

The results showed that beta and gamma oscillations in the brain, measured via EEG, provide unique information about individual and population-wide preference, above and beyond stated preference measures, and can therefore in principle be used as a neural marker for the likelihood of commercial success. As such, these results provide the first evidence that EEG measurements are related to real-world outcomes, and that these neural measurements can significantly add to the value of models predicting choice behaviour compared to models that include only stated preference measurements.


Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is a top tier European business school and ranked among the top three for research. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who carry their innovative mindset into a sustainable future thanks to a first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes. RSM also has offices in the Amsterdam Zuidas business district and in Taipei, Taiwan.

For more information on RSM or on this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, Media & Public Relations Manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at


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