This applied neuroscience study aims to understand how direct and unconscious emotional and cognitive responses underlie travel destination preferences. State-of-the-art neuroscience tools and methods were used, including stationary eye tracking and brain scanning electroencephalography (EEG) to assess emotional and cognitive responses to destination images and assets. To the researchers’ knowledge, this study is the first applied neuroscience study in tourism research and thus opens a new path of research and enquiry to this area. This paper is an attempt to understand specific mental processes in human tourism behaviours, and it is suggest that unconscious emotional and cognitive responses are natural processes that need to be studied and understood, not as special cases, but embedded as natural parts of tourism research.
To better understand consumers’ unconscious responses to possible travel destinations, a 3 × 5 factorial design was run with the factors being stimulus type (images, printed names and videos) and travel destination (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, New York and London). Eye-tracking calibration was done with a nine-point fixation test and the EEG calibration was done using functional localizer tests based on the ABM B-ALERT calibration process. This calibration procedure allows reliable tracking of emotional and cognitive responses over time. Thirty Emirati (nationals of the UAE) participants, consisting of equal numbers of males and females (15) were recruited from the UAE and signed informed consent. Each participant was positioned in front of an eye tracker and computer screen, and brain-scanning equipment was mounted; then, each participant underwent eye-tracking and neuroimaging calibration procedures. A Tobii T60XL eye tracker and an ABM X-10 EEG brain scanner, both running iMotions v5.1 in a Windows 7 environment, were used.
General emotional and cognitive differences were identified between the channels through which travel destinations are presented. Words about and names of travel destinations cause higher cognitive loads, which may not be surprising, given the greater associative load that words have than images. Of particular interest is the hypothesis that images evoke stronger affective responses than verbal representations. However, as previously noted (Holmes and Mathews, 2005), empirical evidence for this assumption seems surprisingly sparse. The present study and the context provided here suggest that decisions on travel destination have an unconscious component and a direct component that may drive or affect overt preference and actual choice.
The limitations of this paper is that first, neuromarketing is not dependent on sample sizes; however, future studies could build on this paper to understand why there is a preference for cities. It is suggested that unconscious emotional and cognitive responses are natural processes that need to be studied and understood, not as special cases, but embedded as natural parts of tourism research.
Thus, tourism research may indeed be a suitable field for understanding the brain bases of complex preference formation and choice. Various researchers have found that a destination image is typically measured using cognitive, affective and behavioural components, and further stated that the cognitive image component of a destination was found to have a significant positive effect on the affective image component and overall destination image (Stylidis et al., 2017). Therefore, this research which has introduced brain scanning can be used to better understand the underlying unconscious emotional and cognitive processes that affect consumer thought and action. An understanding of what goes on in the human unconscious mind is very important for destination marketers, this can help in the integrated marketing communication process to create a destination image and brand.
This study was supported by the Research Incentive Fund (RIF) Grant R14067 ‘Destination Branding: Perception Mapping Elements of Visual and Auditory Communication Elements’ provided by Zayed University, UAE.
Michael, I., Ramsoy, T., Stephens, M. and Kotsi, F. (2019), "A study of unconscious emotional and cognitive responses to tourism images using a neuroscience method", Journal of Islamic Marketing, Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 543-564. https://doi.org/10.1108/JIMA-09-2017-0098
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