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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Social Networking Affects Brains Like Falling in Love

Fast Company
By: Adam L. Penenberg
July 1, 2010
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Photographs by Bryce Duffy

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.

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Photographs by Bryce Duffy
Enlarge147-doctor-love 3
Photographs by Bryce Duffy

The essence of affection. The cuddle chemical. In other words, oxytocin.
Cover of Cover via AmazonThis hormone, produced daily by your brain …, is the reason … I have volunteered … 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. … 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). …
Chemical structure of oxytocin.Image via Wikipedia… 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? …

EXPERIMENT No. 1:

In Which I Learn Trust by Issuing Ultimatums
… The first oxytocin experiment that Zak used, customized for him by former student William T. Matzner and University of Pennsylvania professor Rob Kurzban, was a variation of the "ultimatum game," a staple of economics research. There are many versions, but the general idea is that a first person is given a certain amount of money and told to send some portion to a second person (separated by computers, neither knows the identity of the other). The second person must then decide whether to accept or reject the first's offer. For example, let's imagine that player 1 proposes to divide $10 by offering $3 to player 2. If player 2 accepts the three bucks, they both get to keep their share of the money. If she rejects the offer, neither gets anything.
Animation of an MRI brain scan, starting at th...Image via WikipediaZak juices his trust-game studies by introducing oxytocin. He stimulates my cuddle hormone with a sad video of a toddler named Ben who has a brain tumor, which I watch while ensconced in the MRI chamber, my neurohormonal releases measured every second… Then, while still in the MRI, I play the ultimatum game, clicking through choices 30 different times. Sometimes I offer $7, and sometimes I offer $2. I get annoyed when I receive offers as low as $1, which I reject. …[The] video-induced oxytocin does the trick: My offers are 33% more generous than people who watched a less-wrenching video. And the generosity doesn't hurt my bottom line. Over the course of the game, I make $73, an average score. …
This fits perfectly with Zak's general findings, which show that the more money test subjects received, "the higher their oxytocin levels; the higher their oxytocin levels, the more they reciprocated." I had become part of a virtuous cycle, without even trying.

EXPERIMENT No. 2:

Dan Ariely speaking at TEDImage via WikipediaIn Which I Learn Charity by Snorting Oxytocin
…Late last year, Zak attended a wedding in England and took blood samples from the wedding party before and after the ceremony. Predictably, the bride had the highest levels of oxytocin, followed by her mother. But the groom also experienced a rise, and immediate family measured higher levels of oxytocin than friends.
…Not surprisingly, studies like these have their critics. Predictably Irrational's Ariely, a Duke University economics professor who is a friendly rival of Zak's, believes neuroeconomics has been "overhyped" because "if you look at the amount of money invested into it, there has not been a very good return." He's particularly critical of studies that rely on MRIs, which he says are not definitive. Of Zak's work on oxytocin, however, Ariely is "a big fan," since it "allows you to see quite clearly what the mechanism is" that drives human behavior….
Our second experiment addresses oxytocin's broader role. I gather in a room with a dozen undergrads, all snorting a substance not sold at your local drugstore. … Some are inhaling a placebo, others oxytocin, both administered via identical inhalers. Zak ensures I get oxytocin, so I hoover 40 drops up my nose in 5-drop increments per nostril. …
We then view a series of public-service announcements. The videos, which are real PSAs that ran in the United States and Europe, dramatize such things as the dangers of taking drugs and drunk driving, and the devastation of global warming. … I watch almost a dozen, and after each one am asked a question that tests whether I paid attention. If I answer correctly, I get paid. As a follow-up, I'm asked if I'd like to donate a portion of the proceeds to the organization that sponsored the ad.
The experiment is ongoing, and the data are far from complete. I donated 33% more money to the PSA charities than the placebo group. … Zak's initial findings indicate that folks infused with oxytocin donated an average of 48% more to charity than those administered the placebo. This will be the first study showing that oxytocin increases generosity to charitable organizations, and not simply to a particular individual. And if we can be induced to give more to a charity, well, it's not that big a step to being induced to give more to a corporation, or a political party, or even a country. The possibilities are both thrilling and frightening….

EXPERIMENT No. 3:

In Which I Learn to Love by Tweeting Madly
Image representing TweetDeck as depicted in Cr...Image via CrunchBaseZak greets me at his lab near the Claremont campus, … [A] nurse …draws blood. Then she and Zak leave me alone. I pull up TweetDeck on my laptop and get to work. The question is simple: Will social networking increase my levels of oxytocin? Will my brain react to tweeting as it reacts to, say, a dinner conversation with good friends?
I start tweeting and alert my followers that I'm engaging in a Twitter experiment with a neuroeconomist. I update a previous remark I made about the GPS in my rental car and how the automated voice gets uppity whenever I miss a turn. Responding to a woman I've never met, I type in the language of 140-character Twitterese: "I want Mr. T GPS voice! How abt James Earl Jones? He says turn left you *turn* left. Or Norah Jones? Plaintive directions." Another person I've never met asks my opinion of an infamous journalist, and I answer as best I can. Responding to a former editor, I joke about overweight tourists in Speedos grabbing plum spots on Greek beaches. Some of my "tweeps" respond to my post about the experiment, and I field questions from a couple of New York University students I've taught. And then the nurse returns to take some blood, ending the experiment. I leave wondering whether anything of value could come of such a short, typical, and somewhat dull dip into my tweet stream.
Yet six weeks later, when Zak shares the results with me, my blood tells a more dramatic story. In those 10 minutes between blood batches one and two, my oxytocin levels spiked 13.2%. That's equivalent to the hormonal spike experienced by the groom at the wedding Zak attended. Meanwhile, stress hormones cortisol and ACTH went down 10.8% and 14.9%, respectively. Zak explains that the results are linked, that the release of oxytocin I experienced while tweeting reduced my stress hormones. If that's the case, says Zak, social networking might reduce cardiovascular risks, like heart attack and stroke, associated with lack of social support. But there's even more to our findings. "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."
Other studies support this idea. One Australian experiment discovered that people with a sizable network of friends were less likely to pass away over a 10-year period than those with a small circle of friends – … Another study showed that people with friends get sick less often than those without. … Two researchers from Washington University in St. Louis scanned the brains of fiction readers and discovered that … their brains reacted as if they were actually living the events they were reading about.
Taken with my Twitter test, all of this research reinforces the idea that we are biologically driven to commingle, and suggests that online relationships can be just as real as those conducted offline.
According to Zak, our findings are potentially "huge" … If I'm representative …, then social networking may increase a person's oxytocin levels, thereby heightening feelings of trust, empathy, and generosity. …
… "One day, a company might be better off asking not what its margins are, but what its trust factor is," says Brian Singh, founder of Zinc Research, a social media and marketing research firm in Calgary, Alberta. Singh has begun framing the formation of connections via social networking as a form of "digital oxytocin." 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….
Several pioneering companies, sensing that social media might build trust, have experimented in interesting ways. Zappos publishes a stream of its employees' tweets as a way to interact with consumers. JetBlue has 1.6 million followers on Twitter, where its bio states: "Have a question? Follow us and let us help!" But some efforts have gone famously awry. In one fiasco, Motrin released an online ad implying that a mother carrying her baby in a sling risks backache by buying into a fad, which generated much anger on mommy blogs. Nestlé created a set of online fan pages but then threatened to delete negative comments that altered the company's logo, fanning a conflagration of negativity. Southwest Airlines, famous for being direct and honest with its customers, got nailed when Clerks director Kevin Smith tweeted about the captain who tossed him off his flight, claiming that Smith, due to his size, was a safety risk. Two Domino's Pizza employees from North Carolina posted a video on YouTube where one of them stuck a sliver of grated cheese up his nose and put it on a sandwich. It took Domino's 48 hours to react, and by then the damage was done. (Domino's, of course, has rebounded quite nicely thanks to its new and well-promoted pizza recipe: Sales are up 14% in the first three months of 2010. Which means it is possible to overcome social-media migraines.)
The speed with which social media can affect a company's "trust factor" may lead to a new focus on what Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM Public Relations in New York and author of several books on viral marketing, calls "horizontal growth." In other words, "instead of pushing for new customers, focus on your current customers," he says. "If they have a positive interaction with customer service, or love your product, they'll tell other people and do your marketing for you, which will attract new customers."…
In a world of social networks, then, this much seems clear: Companies that can connect with us and raise our oxytocin levels should prosper. Those that can't, won't.
… As Zak walks me to my car, parked by his Claremont lab, I ask if it really would be possible to manipulate people by, say, releasing oxytocin into the air of a department store to prod them into spending more?
Nah, he says. You'd have to absorb a lot of oxytocin, … The Food and Drug Administration would get involved if companies tried this. Besides, there are far more effective ways to raise someone's oxytocin levels. …
Contributing writer Adam L. Penenberg is the author of Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today's Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves.
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