Here’s a really interesting tidbit from Fast Company. The July issue featured a profile by Adam Penenberg of Professor Paul J. Zak of Claremont Graduate University, a.k.a. Dr. Love, who is pioneering a new field, neuroeconomics, the study of brain chemicals and their impact on consumerism.
In a series of studies spanning nine years, Zak has changed our understanding of human beings as economic animals. Oxytocin is the key (and please, do not confuse the cuddle drug with the painkiller oxycontin). Known for years as the hormone forging the unshakable bond between mothers and their babies, oxytocin is now, thanks largely to Zak, recognized as the human stimulant of empathy, generosity, trust, and more. It is, Zak says, the “social glue” that adheres families, communities, and societies, and as such, acts as an “economic lubricant” that enables us to engage in all sorts of transactions. Zak is a walking advertisement for oxytocin; his vanity license plate reads oxytosn, and he hugs virtually everyone he meets. (“I’ll hug you, too,” he warns.) It’s this passion for the hormone that led to his Claremont campus nickname, Dr. Love.
What Zak discovered is that oxytocin, the cuddle chemical, not only engenders generosity and trust, it also promotes social networking. Apparently, hanging out on Twitter or Facebook stimulates the release of oxytocin in our brains.
“Your brain interpreted tweeting as if you were directly interacting with people you cared about or had empathy for,” Zak says. “E-connection is processed in the brain like an in-person connection.
Consider what this really means. According the the article, when 200 University of Maryland students were asked to give up social networking for a day, many of them actually had withdrawal symptoms. The implications for business are huge. If companies start trading in trust, they can reap greater profits:
The idea is that if businesses wish to thrive in our interconnected world, where consumers’ opinions spread at the speed of light, they must act as a trusted friend: create quality products, market them honestly, emphasize customer care.
So the reasoning goes something like this. Companies that engender trust in their customers will gain customer loyalty and even customer evangelists. If you have a positive experience with a vendor then you Tweet or post to Facebook about it – it’s the entire business premise for Yelp! The actual act of sharing information online promotes trust, not only because of our sense of online connectedness, the tribal nature of social media, but because our brains are wired to release oxytocin while networking, which promotes trust and a sense of connected well-being. Ergo, companies that engage in building trust online have a leg up on the competition, not only because they build a closer relationship with their customers, but because people’s internal hormonal chemistry makes them more disposed to trust their online connections.
Not long ago, when sitting in a marketing meeting with a client, the Vice President of Sales repeated a worn marketing axiom, “People are motivated by fear and greed.” If Dr. Love’s research is any indicator, people are also highly motivated by trust, and it’s time that companies started realizing that they will go farther by building a loyal customer following than striving to scare of con them into buying a better mousetrap.