Beyond Brain Mapping: Using Neural Measures to Predict Real-World Outcomes

Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2013 Feb;22(1):45-50. doi: 10.1177/0963721412469394.


One goal of social science in general, and of psychology in particular, is to understand and predict human behavior. Psychologists have traditionally used self-report measures and performance on laboratory tasks to achieve this end. However, these measures are limited in their ability to predict behavior in certain contexts. We argue that current neuroscientific knowledge has reached a point where it can complement other existing psychological measures in predicting behavior and other important outcomes. This brain-as-predictor approach integrates traditional neuroimaging methods with measures of behavioral outcomes that extend beyond the immediate experimental session. Previously, most neuroimaging experiments focused on understanding basic psychological processes that could be directly observed in the laboratory. However, recent experiments have demonstrated that brain measures can predict outcomes (e.g., purchasing decisions, clinical outcomes) over longer timescales in ways that go beyond what was previously possible with self-report data alone. This approach can be used to reveal the connections between neural activity in laboratory contexts and longer-term, ecologically valid outcomes. We describe this approach and discuss its potential theoretical implications. We also review recent examples of studies that have used this approach, discuss methodological considerations, and provide specific guidelines for using it in future research.

Keywords: brain-as-predictor; brain-behavior relationship; ecological validity; neuroscience; prediction.