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Social Networking Affects Brains Like Falling in Love

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.

Social Networking Affects Brains Like Falling in Love
Photographs by Bryce Duffy
Photographs by Bryce Duffy

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.

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.

Zak 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. (Later, looking over my brain scans, Zak explains, "You were both empathic and saddened by his story. Here's the cool part: We know this movie causes OT release by the bucketsful. Yikes, we may know what we're doing here!") 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. I am in there a long time, and my mind wanders; I even listen to music in my head, an old Coltrane piece I played back in my trumpet days. Even so, 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. (I donate the winnings to Zak's lab.)

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:

In Which I Learn Charity by Snorting Oxytocin
Zak's studies aren't without controversy. One provost shut his project down for a year, calling his work "illegal" and dangerous. But when the provost resigned, Zak pushed on, and his remarkable findings made him an academic celebrity. He appeared on Good Morning America, was quoted widely in newspaper articles, and was even celebrated for his good looks: Wired News named him one of 2005's 10 Sexiest Geeks.

Over the next few years, he launched a flurry of oxytocin experiments. One showed that men personalize negotiations over money, while a second indicated that they react hormonally when not trusted. Another study found that when a man was given a dose of oxytocin, he was more willing to allow someone else to control his investments. Other research showed that touch will trigger release of oxytocin, as will massage. Sometimes his research methods are wildly creative. 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.

But Zak is talking about more than just individual human behavior. His research has always led to greater conclusions. His dissertation looked at factors that might accelerate poverty or prosperity in developing countries. He found that nations with a high level of trust (Norway, Sweden, the United States) have higher income levels and more stable governments than those that don't. Their citizenry possess higher levels of "social capital," which depends on positive interactions between people, on a level of trust created by low crime, better education, and greater economic development. He concluded that trust was the variable that showed whether a society was working well, and when it did, the economy would take off on its own.

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. This triggers some memories, of course, but that's definitely not the point. 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. There's so much oxytocin — our bodies absorb only 10% of it — that it drips down my chin and soaks my shirt. We wait an hour to let the hormone seep into our systems, and I note a fuzzy feeling, which is either psychosomatic or due to lack of sleep.

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. Some are gory; others are scary. 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. ("Congratulations," wrote Zak, when he sent me the result. "You have a heart!") 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.

Which leads me — and Dr. Love — to our final experiment.

EXPERIMENT No. 3:

In Which I Learn to Love by Tweeting Madly
Zak greets me at his lab near the Claremont campus, a three-bedroom house being converted into a spacious new lab. To escape the hammering, yammering workers, he escorts me upstairs to a study where a nurse awaits. She compliments me on my veins and 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 — and that the distance separating friends made no difference. Another study showed that people with friends get sick less often than those without. Again, proximity didn't affect the result. Two researchers from Washington University in St. Louis scanned the brains of fiction readers and discovered that their test subjects created intense, graphic mental simulations of the sights, sounds, movements, and tastes they encountered in the narrative. In essence, 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" — despite the fact that they depend entirely on an unscientific control group of exactly one. If I'm representative (a big if, as we both readily acknowledge), then social networking may increase a person's oxytocin levels, thereby heightening feelings of trust, empathy, and generosity. Why does this matter to businesses? Well, consider that Facebook has more than 400 million users. And consider that a healthy number of those folks are basically addicted to social media. A recent study asked 200 University of Maryland students to give up media for a day, including laptops, MP3 players, smartphones, and TVs. Many of the students suffered withdrawal symptoms, as if they had gone cold turkey giving up drugs. The most painful part, they said, was "losing their personal connections. In their world, going without media meant going without their friends and family."

Zak has little interest in becoming the oxytocin guru of corporate America. He's fixated on causality — what makes us do what we do, not how much money we can make from it. Others, however, are more than happy to build on his work. "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.

Much of this we already know. Companies that instill trust create a bond with customers. To cite just one simple example, my wife and I buy kitchen appliances from Williams-Sonoma because we know from prior experience that if something breaks, the store will replace it or give us a full refund, no matter how worn or old.

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."

For instance, I'm an iPhone user, and am therefore tethered to AT&T whether I like it or not. (I don't.) I have often flambéed AT&T for its rickety 3G network, which often drops calls. Recently, however, I softened my stance after returning from a short trip to Toronto. An AT&T customer-service rep informed me I had racked up hundreds of dollars in roaming charges because I had neglected to protect myself with an international-travel package. She offered to retroactively apply one for $24.99, which effectively wiped the slate clean. You can bet I tweeted my happiness.

This is precisely what the company hoped I'd do. Molly DeMaagd, AT&T's director of social media, says AT&T monitors blogs and social media, spidering the Web for negative commentary. But it also has increased its watch over customers' usage, in large part because an unhappy customer on Twitter doesn't merely have an audience consisting of a few friends. "It could be that hundreds of thousands or millions of people hear about it," she says, "and that could have a negative impact on AT&T's brand image."

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.

This does not mean, by the way, that we should run out to buy Liquid Trust, an oxytocin-based product that purports to be "the world's first Trust Enhancing Body Spray, specially formulated to increase trust in the wearer." Selling on Amazon for $29.95, the spray is marketed to guys who want to pick up girls. Classy product, that. 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, and even the 40 drops I snorted during the charity experiment took an hour to take effect. 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. And before I get into my car, Zak leans toward me and says, "Wait, I almost forgot. I have to do this," and gives me a hug.

Contributing writer Adam L. Penenberg is the author of Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today's Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves.

A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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