Tell me something that proves you understand me – and I’ll likely begin to trust you. I’ll definitely begin to consider it. Sharing our experiences is how we communicate as human beings. We connect with the people whose stories we recognise ourselves in.
In other words: If you’re a brand or a business that wants to connect with a customer, showcase empathy.
It means you have to appeal to your audience on an emotive level, and when you succeed, something magical happens in their brains. It’s called oxytocin – or the hormonal conceptualisation of trust.
So what’s oxytocin, anyway?
Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus, where things like hunger, thirst, sleep, and parental/attachment behaviour are controlled. Most commonly, oxytocin comes up in conversation surrounding childbirth and breastfeeding, because it plays an integral role in forming the bond between mother and child. It’s released both during labour and even plays a physical role in women’s milk production.
Basically, oxytocin is hugely important where maternal behaviour is concerned; when female rats were given oxytocin antagonists they stopped displaying their motherly love – while when female sheep were given oxytocin, they began displaying these behaviours towards non-biological lambs.
In other words: Oxytocin is a hormone that promotes group association. It makes us feel like we’re part of something.
When oxytocin is released by the brain, we are more likely to bond – and to classify the individuals or groups we meet as in-group. They become part of our crew. Of course, this isn’t all good – oxytocin also increases the sense of an out-group. The hormone makes us more empathetic towards members of our own race, for example, and so less empathetic towards others.
The neurological Golden Rule
In storytelling and business communications, oxytocin is most interesting because of its pivotal role in building and reciprocating trust. What studies have found is that oxytocin is synthesised in the human brain when one is trusted. What does that mean? Put simply, it means that if you treat me well, my brain will, in most cases, produce some oxytocin. This, in turn, means I’m more likely to develop trust – and bond with you. The oxytocin facilitates bonding; it puts us in the same boat.
And that is exceptionally important when you’re trying to build a long-lasting relationship with someone.
Now, trust isn’t just the beginnings of a relationship. It’s the glue that holds it together. And oxytocin is there, all along, nudging the relationship along, and allowing it to grow and strengthen. In one study, young adult men were told to retrieve and share a painful memory. Some of them were given oxytocin, others a placebo. Here’s the kicker: The men who received the trust hormone were much more willing to share memory-related emotions:
“Oxytocin did not make people more talkative (word counts were comparable across the two groups) but instead increased the willingness to share the specific component that is responsible for the calming and bonding effects of social sharing: emotions.”
Have you ever cried during a movie? Felt so entirely like you were standing in the shoes of the protagonist that you could practically be them? The reason movies, novels, and all manner of stories make us feel so much comes back to that same concept of in-group versus out-group – and how we actually start producing oxytocin when we recognise ourselves in someone else’s story.
It turns out that when we are exposed to a compelling narrative, with a dramatic arc, good old hypothalamus secretes oxytocin.
That’s right. A good story triggers the production of a hormone that promotes trust.
Neuroscientist Paul J. Zak started studying this after he’d witnessed his own reaction to watching Million Dollar Baby (crying uncontrollably), and found a higher amount of oxytocin in the test subjects’ blood after watching a compelling movie:
In our first study of narratives, we took blood before and after participants watched one of the two versions of the video. We found that the narrative with the dramatic arc caused an increase in cortisol and oxytocin. Tellingly, the change in oxytocin had a positive correlation with participants’ feeling of empathy for (the protagonists).
Applying oxytocin knowledge to brand communications
So what have we sussed out from this cool little hormone thus far?
- Oxytocin promotes social bonding (creates community)
- Oxytocin is produced by the brain when we are treated well (mutual trust)
- Oxytocin stimulates prosocial behaviour (and a sense of belonging)
- Oxytocin is produced when we witness an inspiring and powerful story
We all know that trust drives sales and increases engagement. When your audience or customer trusts you, they are substantially more likely to buy from you. As such, the goal of any communications effort aimed at either selling more or increasing engagement, should be to promote brand trust.
Combine this with what you’ve just learnt. A good story – an evocative one, that’s emotive and meaningful – promotes the production of oxytocin. Oxytocin, in turn, promotes social bonding. Which leads to trust. And then we’re right back at the start again, except this time, your audience has even more trust in you. Of course this all has to be backed up by delivering on your promises and providing an amazing service. Without it, you get a breach of trust.
But the compelling narrative to oxytocin release to social bonding loop is there. It’s like a circular feedback system.
The thing running it? Story.