Building Trust: Chemical Neuromarketing


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.

  1. Susan Kuchinskas says

    Car dealers and politicians are doubtless already expert at causing an oxytocin response in their customers, albeit unconsciously.

    Building trust is nothing new, it’s the basis of most human economic and social interactions. And oxytocin is the base-level neurochemical cause. Now that we know about oxytocin, some people may try to directly foster this response, but it’s something we all do and experience unconsciously already.

    You mentioned causing customers to “breathe oxytocin.” There’s some evidence that we may exchange oxytocin molecules with each other.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Good point, Susan. Perhaps I should have said emphasized artificial introduction of oxytocin to customers, vs. whatever natural generation or exchange occurs.

  3. ajith menon says

    The stumbling block in using neuroscience in marketing has been the issue of ethical application of this science. Many believe (neuroscientists ? who are up in arms against application of this for marketing) that techniques are being used only for ‘commercial interests’ and skewed towards consumer behavior and identifying ‘buy buttons’. For example the above iteration that someone can end up using Oxytocin and the possibility of manipulating a customer for a favorable response itself is an indication of the ‘concern’ being expressed. On the other hand a concept like trust which are never explicable explained- where most of the studies are based on self assessment models – where the dependence is on the assumptions and response of the respondent, neuroscience helps to understand the larger cognitive process that are involved in trust. For example is consumer trust similar to the trust exhibited towards a family member. Neuroscience can help unravel the psychological and physiological process that underlie complex mechanisms like trust, ethics etc.

  4. Authority Networker says

    It would seem that consumers of today have built up a resistance to traditional forms of selling and advertising. People want the freedom to choose and feel comfortable when purchasing any product or service. A new internet network marketing lead generation tactic called attraction marketing is now becoming more popular. Integrating this attraction marketing formula into your internet network marketing will allow your customers to get to know and trust you. Not only will you develop ongoing relationships with clients, but these clients will also bring in more business for you via referrals. Attraction marketing is all about making buying interesting, comfortable and engaging the customers. The results from attraction marketing will be much more favorable then if you were to try to hard-sell everything.

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