Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has discovered, for the first time, that social networking triggers the release of the generosity-trust chemical in our brains. And that should be a wake-up call for every company.
The essence of affection. The cuddle chemical. In other words, oxytocin.
This hormone, produced daily by your brain and mine, is the reason I’m on my back, trying to remain perfectly still inside a magnetic-resonance-imaging machine secreted in the basement of a cheerless building at the California Institute of Technology. Even though I am cocooned by earplugs and noise-cancellation headphones, it’s freakishly loud in here, a mix of jackhammer pulses and a hurricane whoosh of air. In other words, it’s your typical MRI experience — save for the Apple laptop bolted a couple of feet above my head, the mouse on my chest, and the unbearably sad video playing on the MacBook screen.
I have volunteered for this, signing up to be a test subject for Dr. Love, aka Paul J. Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University who popularized “neuroeconomics,” an emerging field that combines economics with biology, neuroscience, and psychology. In this first of three experiments, I’m helping Zak’s researchers gauge the relationship between empathy and generosity. While best-selling behavioral economists such as Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational) and Steven D. Levitt (half of the Freakonomics duo) ponder how we make economic decisions, Zak wants to figure out why we do what we do.
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.
But I didn’t come to L.A. in search of love, or even a hug. I came for answers. Specifically, I wondered if Zak’s research could be applied to social media, an area I’ve explored in my own work. What explains the need of our BlackBerry-bearing, Twitter-tweeting Facebook friends for constant connectivity? Are we biologically hardwired to do it? Do our brains react to tweeting just as they do to our physical engagement with people we trust and enjoy?
The answers could have profound ramifications. As Zak and others deepen their study of oxytocin, we may better understand why people with friends live longer and get sick less, and why we are compelled to be social animals online and off. If these changes apply in the world of social media, the implications for business — for every brand, company, and marketer trying to understand the now intimately networked world — could be significant. Yes, there may be a dark side to all this: What if corporations come to understand human behavior and its root mechanisms so well that they can manipulate our biochemistry to trick us into buying more? But that’s a question for later. For now, I just put myself in the hands of Dr. Love.
EXPERIMENT No. 1:
In Which I Learn Trust by Issuing Ultimatums
For as long as he can remember, Paul Zak has been obsessed by how things work. Growing up in Santa Barbara, California, he and his dad constantly tinkered: They built a calculator from scratch, pieced together an Altair 8800 computer from a kit, and took apart the family car. Ask Zak about his own personality, and he’ll cite the results from his Myers-Briggs test. (He’s an NP — intuitive perceiver — “all into creativity and making weird connections,” he says.) While some men might describe their wives as extremely organized, Zak says his has a “highly developed hypothalamus.”
When a biological anthropologist suggested he spice up his economic research on families with an inquiry into oxytocin, a hormone then famous only in ob-gyn circles, Zak wasn’t turned off; he was intrigued. It seemed, he admits, “like the dumbest idea in the world. But at least it was testable-dumb.” So in 2001, just after he’d been granted tenure, he marched into his dean’s office to tell him that he just wouldn’t be publishing for a while. Instead, he was going to take blood from hundreds of people to measure whether their hormones changed during certain emotional states and whether this influenced their economic behavior. Since Claremont wasn’t going to finance the $300 per test subject to get the data, Zak went the DIY seed-capital route. He started with a friends-and-family round of financing. The person in the next office gave him $5,000 from one of her grants, another offered $3,000 from one of his, and a colleague at UMass Amherst wrote him a check for $5,500. Then a trustee donated $15,000 to cover the cost of a centrifuge and an ultra-cold freezer; after checking OSHA guidelines, Zak ripped out a cabinet and a bookshelf in his office and bolted the 8-by-4-by-3-foot freezer to the wall.