Much of what we write about here at Neuromarketing is research that helps explain behavior. In other words, the neuroscientists take known human behavior and use brain imaging or other tools to help understand why that occurs. Generally, magic “buy buttons” are out of the question. Some work performed by Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a team of Swiss researchers, suggests that some seemingly magical ways of influencing human behavior may yet be found.

A couple of years ago, Zak and his colleagues found that a compound found in the brain, oxytocin, can improve trust of others when sprayed into the nostrils of human subjects.

Scientists have known for years that oxytocin acts as a kind of social cement in animals. Oxytocin’s key role in the whirlwind courtship of the prairie vole — which have repeated sex for a day or so and then stay together for life — once prompted Damasio to compare the hormone to the love potion in the opera “Tristan und Isolde.”

Zak thought the chemical might be crucial not just for love, but any social exchange that requires trust.

He and his Swiss co-authors at the University of Zurich had 128 college students play a “trust game,” in which one person invests simulated money and another is the trustee. First the investor chooses how much money to give the trustee, after which the investment automatically triples. The trustee then decides how much money to give back to the investor, if any. At the end, everyone cashes in the credits for real money. The Zurich researchers gave some of the investors oxytocin — three squirts in each nostril, a dose known to increase brain levels of the hormone temporarily. Those students gave the trustees significantly more money on average than students who didn’t get oxytocin.

Nearly half of the people in the oxytocin group invested the maximum amount; in the other group only one-fifth gave the maximum investment. [From Trust Elixir a Potent Whiff]

This finding is, perhaps, a wee bit scary… If an car dealer could somehow get its customers to breathe oxytocin, would buyers suspend their natural suspicion? What about politicians? Or, along the same lines as the study, how about real investment advisers?

It’s doubtful that treating potential customers with hormones to pump up sales would be either legal or ethical, but this research does have neuromarketing significance. The findings underscore the importance of brain chemistry in consumer behavior – people think of themselves as rational, conscious decision makers, but this is one more piece of evidence showing that’s not always true.