Trust and the Moral Molecule
In this 33rd episode of the TrustTalk podcast, we interview Professor Paul Zak. He developed the Immersion Neuroscience Platform, a wearable, and software that uses heart rate to measure oxytocin, the hormone released as people experience feelings of emotional resonance. He found that building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference. Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.
Oxytocin and his neuroscience research into trust
“So the idea was that there must be some signal, not perfect because evolution doesn’t give us perfection, but something that’s good enough that says this person saved this person not or this person appears to be trustworthy. I can interact with him or her, and if someone is not. And so there was a rich animal literature starting in the late 1970s, showing that a particular neurochemical called oxytocin signals to group living rodents that another rodent appeared to be familiar or safe. And I thought, gosh, that seems like the signal I’ve been looking for to understand how individuals and organizations benefit from having high levels of trust. And so the difficulty there was that in animals, you drill into this skull to sample the chemicals in the brain. I don’t know a lot about humans, but I’m guessing the humans weren’t going to be super excited about me drilling into their heads. So essentially, I’m a tool guy, so I developed a tool or a protocol to measure the human brain, acute production of oxytocin. And then we designed experiments that we thought would induce the brain to make this neurochemical.”
The tool to measure oxytocin, leads to the question: how far can it be pushed? How much stimulus do you need for your brain to make oxytocin? So when you hug someone that will generally cause your brain to release oxytocin or do something nice for you. During the research, Paul and his team started looking at videos and they wonder if you just watch a short ad or video, could oxytocin actually be used to predict what people would do? And the short answer is no, that there’s a host of other neurochemicals and a larger network in the brain that activates, so that allows us to predict when people have a social stimulus, could be a movie, could be a personal interaction, could be a message on Twitter. How will people respond? Can we predict that? In research by Paul and his team, they found this neurologic state he calls immersion, which is a state in which I’m attentive to what’s going on, and oxytocin gives me this emotional connection to it.
About the power of Storytelling
So storytelling is somehow part of our deep human nature, and it is the most effective way to communicate information. And so it’s like the scales fall from your eyes. When you run these experiments, you go, oh holy moly, this is a really effective way. It’s much better than PowerPoint slides or words. Put it on a human scale story with authentic emotions, and then people will care. And I think Severin, that’s about us as social creatures. We are fascinated by other humans. And because of that, if you tell me a story about what humans are doing, fiction or nonfiction, I’m interested. If you can convey that in a way that is interesting to my brain and story structure is about the most effective way to do that.
See also Paul Zak’s article ” The Neuroscience of Trust, Management behaviors that foster employee engagement” in Harvard Business Review (Feb. 2017)
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Below is the transcript of the full interview. In the interview, you can read the sentence: “
We looked at a whole bunch of different kinds of content, and we found is that the sort of classical story structure and narrative arc for the well-versed listeners? It’s called the Freitag’s triangle rising action crisis resolution that is almost the most effective way. Almost, I’ll take the almost out. It is the most effective way to induce the brain to actually care about a piece of content. So story structure, storytelling, is somehow part of our deep human nature, and it is the most effective way to communicate information.
For those not familiar with Freytag’s Pyramid: this is how that looks like:
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And here is the full transcript of the interview
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