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Dopamine, oxytocin and the brain: are relationships of trust purely chemical?

Technology & Data

Dopamine, oxytocin and the brain: are relationships of trust purely chemical?


Building a trustworthy brand goes beyond providing consistency, responsiveness and transparency. By becoming more familiar with the brain, marketers can better understand relationships of trust, says Sérgio Brodsky.

This article originally appeared in The Trust Issue, our June/July print edition of Marketing magazine.

Consistency, responsiveness and transparency are often cited as the key ingredients to building trust, as these are able to anticipate specific feeling towards specific experiences. By standardising their practices, brands are able to remove the discomfort of having to deal with hits-and-misses, ensuring expectations are met.

Yet, according to global trust authority Rachel Botsman, “trust is the degree of comfort one feels when dealing with the unknown”. And, once established, trust replaces the need for consistency, responsiveness and transparency. As paradoxical as it may sound, what Botsman means is that trustworthiness is independent, allowing us to confidently venture into the unexpected; like those dine-in-the-dark experiences.

Speaking of darkness, the US Dollar motto ‘In God we trust’ is but a way to reassure that despite its Kafkian apparatus, the Federal Reserve is an institution Americans can ‘bank’ on. Even after recent crises, the emergence of financial technologies and an overwhelmingly negative public opinion, the sector’s disruption still is far from fruition.

With its ratings, reviews, pictures and direct, real-time communication between guests and hosts – all wrapped up under a consistent UX design – Airbnb has turned a suspicious idea into a successful business.

Trust Cover 200The above tactics proved effective but are no antidote to countering the intrinsic distrust we have of brands and people in general. And, the strict application of consistency, responsiveness and transparency guidelines are as difficult as they are expensive to operationalise.

But when considering that brands and religion carry so many similarities, a powerful insight can be drawn by looking back at one of the first and most remarkably longstanding cases of trust, the covenant between God and Abraham. Without any consistency, responsiveness or transparency the father of monotheism went through ten different challenges, having overcome them all – including circumcising himself – in exchange for the posterity of his (yet-to-be-born!) people.

That did not increase Abraham’s love over God but ensured an everlasting trustworthy relationship beyond doubt. That is simply because we mostly trust not those we simply like (e.g. friends) but those we can count on (e.g. family). And, in hindsight, monotheism prevailed whereas ancient forms of paganism vanished. But what is really hard to understand was what actually allowed Abraham to trust that a series of aggressive, irrational rituals would lead into a seemingly infinite pact?!

According to (modern) science the answer lies in the neurochemical oxytocin (OT), which is released whenever we experience feelings of connection. OT, in turn, motivates reciprocation. The release of OT signals that the other party is ‘safe’ to be around and that cooperative behaviour will not be exploited. Social media can be better used this way. But ephemeral interactions won’t do the trick. Dopamine spikes resulting from likes, shares or reposts won’t help with trust, those will only get us hooked like video games or apps do.

Strong bonds emerge from meaningfully putting skin (or, foreskin… pun intended) in the game; like initiating or moderating discussions. When it comes to media (not just social), designing participatory ecosystems is key for trust, where engagement improves conversion. As audiences become increasingly more engaged with a brand, they become more willing to pay for its products and services — and the brand must take an active approach to encourage its audiences to lead the creation of new social groups, conversations and channels.

Empirical research led by professors Lior Zalmanson, a Fulbright visiting scholar at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and Gal Oestreicher-Singer from Tel Aviv University’s School of Management demonstrated the correlation between meaningfulness of engagement and conversion rates.

The researchers also found that audiences who were more actively engaging with a brand made a purchase decision sooner compared with those who were less active (or not active at all).

So how can we get to a point where we trust a brand, colleagues or anything else so much that we may willingly put our lives in their own hands?

This is not the most uncommon situation and is experienced every day from going to a doctor, lawyer, playing contact sports or… venturing into space as an astronaut. In the extreme case of astronauts, NASA has actually gone the lengths by hiring a wilderness trainer that prepared groups of astronauts to trust one another in any situation during extended missions.

Once again, overcoming stressful situations together, such as having to hunt to avoid hunger, came as the most effective way to building trustworthy relationships. From this extreme training, key trust levers were identified and below I’ve added what the implications could be for brands:

click to enlarge


As trust moves away from centralised institutions and gets distributed across society and, CMOs worldwide get their budgets reduced, we must consider more cost-effective ways of engagement that improves conversions.

For marketers this means adding the ‘neuro’ prefix to their titles and becoming more familiar with our brains, replacing dopamine-fuelled communications with oxytocin-led experiences. Building more meaningful interactions between audiences and brand via participatory media ecosystems is your best bet. I won’t present case studies, answer questions or provide any more information than what is already here. Just trust me. Will you?


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Image copyright: tonaquatic19 / 123RF Stock Photo

Sérgio Brodsky

Sérgio Brodsky (L.LM, MBA) is an internationally experienced brand strategist, a marketing lecturer at RMIT and chairman at The Marketing Academy Alumni. He is passionate about cities and culture and the role of brands and technology in society, an intersection from where he drew inspiration to conceive a radically innovative approach to brand communications, he coined Urban Brand-Utility. Connect with Sérgio on www.sergio-brodsky.com or through his Twitter handle @brandKzarglobal brand strategy and innovation. Follow him on Twitter: brandKzar.

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