Activity in the medial prefrontal region helped UCLA researchers predict which study participants would increase their sunscreen use, even better than the participants themselves could predict. UCLA via Singularity Hub

MRI scans are already being used to explain current behavior by mapping blood flow to certain brain regions. Now researchers at UCLA think they can be used to predict your future behavior even better than you can.

In a study published last week, they showed neural signals can predict future behavior more accurately than people’s own best guesses. This has major implications for everything from advertisers, who would very much like to anticipate what you’ll do, to educators, who could predict how much knowledge students will actually retain.

The researchers studied brain activity of people who watched public-service announcements about the importance of wearing sunscreen. They focused on two brain regions, the medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus, which are both associated with self-awareness. The subjects — mostly UCLA students — were asked how they felt about sunscreen and how likely they were to use it. The researchers gave the subjects sunscreen to be sure they’d have access to it.

A week later, the participants reported how much sunscreen they actually used. About half had been able to accurately predict their behavior.

The neuroscientists developed a model that compared the subjects’ brain activity to their own predictions, and found the model was accurate 75 percent of the time. In other words, it was more accurate than the students’ own ability to predict how they would act. The findings were published last week in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Matthew Lieberman, a UCLA psychology and psychiatry professor who led the study, said people are not very good judges of what they will actually do.

“Many people ‘decide’ to do things but then don’t do them,” he says.

The study involved a small sample size — just 20 students — and more work needs to be done to understand the disconnect between your intentions and your actions. But the study could pave the way for neurologically informed marketing, education and even public health campaigns, UCLA says.

[UCLA via Singularity Hub]