The Neuroscience of Online Relationships and Marketing

by Marianne Richmond on January 31, 2006

The Edge Foundation asked a number of the world’s greatest scientists this past December to answer the question: What is your dangerous idea? One answer came from Daniel Goleman who is best known as the author of Emotional Intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence was one of those books that everybody talked
about, but not everybody that talked about it had read the book. I
think maybe there should be a "Q" for managers that have a copy of it
on their office bookshelf…maybe "BQ".

Intelligence, the concept, became one of those things that everybody
wanted to have. I think the reason for that might just be that Goleman
said that EI "mattered" more than IQ…in other words, high IQ did not
necessarily correlate with success and one’s IQ was like our social
security number, a lifetime committment; EI, on the other hand was
necessary for success in life, love and work and best of all, it could
be learned. He suggested that there were 5 hierarchical steps (2 less than the 7 habits and 7 less than than AA!):
1. Ability to name one’e emotional state and understand the link between emotions, thought and action
2. Capacity to manage one’s emotional state and to shift if necessary.
3. Ability to enter into emotional states associated with drive to achieve and be successful
4. Capacity to read, be sensitive, and influence other people’s emotions.
5. Ability to enter and sustain satisfactory interpersonal relationships.

OK…well that was 1995, before the Internet, as we know it now. Goleman’s
dangerous idea for 2006 was cyber-disinhibition. He wrote that the
Internet has a  negative influence on  the quality of our interpersonal
interantions….a kind of cyber road rage takes control on line. He
says that the Internet interferes with the way that our brains are
wired to connect in a civil manner…probably  also lower our emotional
intelligence score. He says that the prefrontal cortex of the brain
that monitors live personal interactions and guides us to make socially
appropriate responses and inhibits inapprorpiate social responses is
dependent upon  real time feedback from another person which he says is
not available in on-line interactions.The result, disinhibition. We
behave badly…in a manner that we would not behave off line.

He goes on to say that this really only happens when we are in a
negative emotional state not in positive or neutral states. So, we get
mad and shoot off an email nastrygram and say things we wouldn’t say
face to face. He writes that the greatest problem with
cyber-disinhibition is with adolecents, cyber-bullying; he sites the
example of cliques that pick on individual girls.

OK, first of all….people have always used the written word to say what they wouldn’t say in person….the Dear John or
job rejection letter. Second of all, there are alot of problems for
kids using the internet; but I don’t think cyber-disinhibition is at
the root of it. The issue of immediate reponse in on-line interaction?
Has Mr. Goleman not heard of IMs and the fact that this is the
communication method of choice for adolecents. Further, kids don’t need
the Internet to form cliques and pick on other kids…I have not seen
any empirical data to support and increase in clique behavior because
of the Internet.

However, where I really think that Mr.
Goleman has got it wrong is in his statements that the internet has a
negative influence on the quality of our interactions…I think it is
just the opposite. I think this statement regarding the negative
influence of the Internet is a dangerous idea. I think that the
Internet, blogs in particular, has had a postive influence on enhancing
our social networks as well as enhancing our ability as marketers, to
engage customers and establish relationships.

From a social
network perspective, without benefit of voice, eye to eye, or face to
face contact connections are being made on line and relationships are
being built. This is interesting in light of Goleman’s comments about
the activation of the prefrontal cortex and the brain’s need for real
time feedback to guide our behavior. I don’t doubt the importance of
the prefrontal cortex of the brain in our ability to communicate but I
wonder how it is functioning so well in online conversations in the
absence of the usual suspects of inputs, eye contact, body language,
facial expressions.

The  ability to understand the mental
processes of others and the ablility to "mentalize"  is usually studied
as "Theory of Mind". Individuals with brain damage in specific regions
of the brain and autistic individuals who seem unable to understand
that other people have thoughts and emotions different from their own
are frequently evaluated to further the understanding of normal human
behavior. So, what influence does the "lack of real time feedback" and
of course eye contact, facial expressions and body language have on the
quality of on line relationships. And of course, the question of "can
relationships be built on line?" 

There was one interesting study conducted at the  Center for Neuroeconomic Studies
by Paul Zak on trust, which has to be considered the foundation of
relationships, that showed that oxytocin, a hormone that circulates in
the brain and body, increased as trust signals increased. As a person
observes that another person trusts them, oxytocin rises and the more
oxytocin rises the more trust is reciprocated. According to Zak,
"Participants in the study were unable to articulate why they behaved
the way that they did, but nonetheless their brains guided them to
behave in ‘socially desirable ways’, that is to be trustworthy. This
tells us that human beings are exquistely attuned to interpreting and
responding to social signals."

However, the relevant part of
this study to the issue of on-line communications, both personal and
for brands and services,  is that this study took place by computer
without any face to face contact. Monteary transfers were used to
measure trust and trustworthiness among particpants who did not know
each other but were matched in pairs. The explanation of the behavior
is that people formed temporary social bonds with the other person in
their pair.

The stronger the signal of trust, the more the oxytocin levels
increased and the more trustworthy the people behaved. The brain was
able to pick up social signals of trust and act upon them even without
physical contact. According to Zak, "Trust in our species therefore
appears to be driven by an emotional sense of what to do, rather than a
conscious determination."

So off-line it would seem that
although oxytocin was flowing, verbal or non-verbal input could
override our feelings of trust. On-line these inputs would be absent.
So then do we somehow compensate for this lack of verbal/non-verbal
input in on-line communications?

Well back to the brain…or to the mirror neurons.
A neuroscientist named V.S. Ramachandran wrote that the discovery of
mirror neurons in the frontal lobe was as important to psychology as
DNA was to biology…in other words "provide a unifying framework and
help explain a host of mental abilities"  such as empathy,  ‘theory of
mind’ and the ability to adopt another’s point of view.

are regular neurons that read expressions and body language and then
there are mirror neurons, much smarter neurons if you will, and these
mirror neurons understand the intentions of others because there is a
template in our brains that interprets the intentions of others through
our own intentions. The New York Times wrote about mirror neurons a few weeks ago in an article called "Cells that Read Minds".

The NYT said that,  "Language is based on mirror
neurons, according to Michael Arbib, a neuroscientist at the University
of Southern California. One such system, found in the front of the
brain, contains overlapping circuitry for spoken language and sign

Autism and Aspergers, it is speculated by some neuroscientists may be the result of broken mirror neurons that cannot feel the emotions of others.

The NYT notes that the mirror neurons work "better" in real life
than in video or "virtual" reality but studies have indicated that the
mirror neurons of children watching violent television shows were
activated enough to increase the liklihood of aggressive behavior. The
most relevant findings about mirror neurons for online relationships
would be the findings of Dr. Vittorio Gallese, a neuroscientist at
Parma University,  "When you see the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo
Bernini’s hand of divinity grasping marble, you see the hand as if it
were grasping flesh, he said. Experiments show that when you read a
novel, you memorize positions of objects from the narrator’s point of

Less poetically: if you can establish personal
relationships offline, you can probably establish them on line…thanks
to mirror neurons. Active mirror neurons=high degree of empathy=a climb
up the 5 steps of emotional intelligence, on line or off. Add some
oxytocin for trust.

The most recent Pew Internet & American Life Project Report
confirmed that the Internet has transformed communications into linked
social networks that transcend geography and proximity. Equally
important is that individuals are tapping in to their on line networks
to make important life decisions and purchases.

Toby Bloomberg at Diva Marketing does an excellent job of articulating this from a customer perspective,  "Think about the layers of networking available to
our customers to learn about our products or services. The top of the
virtual onion might be reviews on and product websites
wherethe reviewer is available via email to provide further
information. The next peel down might be from message boards and blogs
where over time trusted relationships are formed. The next layer might
be email exchanges with family and friends. Granted this is simplistic
view of a complex subject, but I think you get
where I’m going with this one. The neighborhoods where corner grocery
relationships were once built are now virtual and viral."

As George Silverman said in his WOMMA
session, "The Secrets of Word of Mouth Marketing," the new rules of
marketing are all about embracing the customer, not capturing their
hearts and not a battle for their minds; Or as
Jamie Tedford,  of Arnold Worldwide
said, "WOMM is for lovers."  Empathy is the key ingredient for
relationships, personal realtionships, customer relationships, client
relationships. The rule is the Golden Rule; and remember, there is a neuroscientific explanation for it.

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