How useful is neuroscience in sales? Can we read minds?

How useful is neuroscience in sales? Can we read minds?

Sales trend 8 of Barrett’s 12 Sales Trends for 2015 is about “neuroselling”.

Recently, there has been a shift from economic models to emotion-based or psychological models of selling. The shift to emotional, psychological, and scientific models has been occurring across other areas of business for many years, so it comes as no surprise that it is now happening in sales. However, rather than talking about emotion-based models, people are jumping straight to scientific terminology and talking about using neuroscience in sales.

Cognitive neuroscience (a branch of neuroscience, which is the study of the nervous system as a whole) is essentially the study of how the nervous system (specifically the brain) acts and reacts to different cognitive factors, which include thoughts, memories, and emotions. The key part here is that it is the study of the brain. Whilst the ideas that come out of cognitive neuroscience are interesting and can help to inform business and sales decisions, it is often not practicable, necessary, or viable for businesses to undertake comprehensive neuroscientific research with their customers. Instead, companies are looking at general principles and findings from neuroscience in relation to human emotions and emotional responses, and identifying ways of applying these findings to their and other businesses.

This extrapolation process, however, is not easy. It requires both a strong scientific background and a high level of business acumen to know what information is relevant, when, and to whom.[1] Understanding the emotions and drivers of buyers is important, particularly in relation to factors that impact on the decision-making processes. An effective sales person needs to be aware of the emotions and needs of buyers, and the impact they (as a sales person) have on these aspects. However, sales people and sales teams also need to be sure that the tools they draw on are appropriate and context-specific for their own needs.

Neuroscience, unfortunately, has become the new “shiny toy” in sales, and many companies (not all, but certainly enough to be concerning), are either incorrectly claiming to “do” or to “use” neuroscience to improve sales results. Instead, these companies are selecting a single principal, or set of findings, from cognitive neuroscience research, taking it out of context, and describing it almost as a ‘panacea’ that can solve any given sales problem. Alternatively, these companies are simply adding the word “neuro” to other recognised sales-related terms to make their company seem more attractive.

Whilst there are some companies out there doing good work, at the moment it is a ‘buyer beware’ market, and (as with any other aspect of business) salespeople should ensure they do their own independent research before engaging with a supplier who is promising to “quadruple” sales results or teach them to “read buyers’ minds”.




The increasingly common trend of oversimplifying cognitive neuroscience has led to a corresponding increasing trend in firms incorrectly or inappropriately using the term ‘neuroscience’ to describe what they offer. The incessant oversimplification and incorrect labelling of services can be very confusing for companies just starting to move into this space, who can “feel like children in a sweet shop, overawed and in danger of choosing the shiniest products, just because they can.”[2]

There are so many competing companies and products all offering ways of using “neuroscience” or “neuroselling” to help you “double, triple or even quadruple”[3] your sales results, that it can be hard not to be swept away in the momentum and hype. The problem is that many of these companies are using the term neuroscience without fully understanding the science behind it. This has led to a number of grand assumptions and seemingly outrageous claims, including that “neuroscience” or “neuroselling” can:

  • Help you (as a sales person) understand and change people’s habits[4];
  • Understand how to ‘convince’ buyers to make a purchasing decision[5];
  • Teach you how to “hypnotise” buyers and put them into a “buying trance”[6]; and/or
  • Allow you to “read people’s minds”[7].

The oversimplification and lack of clarity has also led to many articles, blogs, and papers (including scientific articles) claiming to show a link between neuroscientific research and a particular topic of interest, without ever even referring to either the brain or the nervous system.[8]

Scientists and researchers are generally cautious, and want to ensure they have enough research to back any assumptions or assertions they make. Sales managers and business leaders, on the other hand, are time poor and results focused, and want something that works, and is ready to be applied immediately. Whilst some authentic neuroscience firms are working with businesses and sales teams to provide accurate insights in shorter timeframes, there are still many companies offering “easy fixes and quick gains, based on ‘proven’ research”[9].

Savvy sales teams need to be wary of companies using the term ‘neuro’ in their offerings. They need to do their due diligence and ensure that the science these companies are using is correct and appropriate for what they are claiming. Sales teams need to ensure that any company they engage with that does do neuroscience understands both sales and business environments (specifically their sales and business environment). These contracted consulting firms need to know how neuroscience can make a difference, or even just provide an insight, within the business’ unique environments, not just provide broad, general rules.

 Remember everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett is the founder and CEO of the innovative and forward-thinking sales advisory and education firm, Barrett and the online sales education & resource platform









[8] Wall, M. (2014). How neuroscience is being used to spread quackery in business and education. The Conversation, 26 August.

[9] Wall, M. (2014). How neuroscience is being used to spread quackery in business and education. The Conversation, 26 August.


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