Date posted: 17/05/2019 5 min read

What you didn’t know about the neuroscience of trust

Trust is at the core of an accountant’s relationships with clients, but what is ‘trust’ and how does it affect business?

In Brief

  • Oxytocin, the so-called ‘love drug’, raises your motivation to trust others.
  • Knowing that you’re trusted makes you release oxytocin yourself, which in turn makes other people more likely to trust you, creating a ‘virtuous cycle’ of higher oxytocin levels.
  • Employees will invest more of themselves in organisations that they trust, fuelling stronger business performance.

By Stuart Ridley

Neuroscientists are discovering more about how our brains are wired, and the strong connections between the parts related to trust, social connectivity and wellbeing. The good news is that being trustworthy switches on those connections in other people.

1. Connectedness is boosted by the ‘love drug’ oxytocin

When we feel connected to someone, a hormone called oxytocin is released into the bloodstream making us feel good, and we then feel even more connected. Among mammals, breastfeeding mothers release oxytocin when a baby suckles, stimulating milk flow and more feelings of connectedness – a biological bonding and love response.

2. Feeling good motivates doing good

American neuroeconomist Paul J Zak studies the neuroscience of trust. His early experiments revealed people who felt connected and trusted each other experienced what he called “virtuous cycles” of higher oxytocin levels.

In 2001, Zak ran an experiment where he gave people an oxytocin boost via a nasal spray. He found the oxytocin significantly raised their motivation to trust people, as well as their desire to be trusted.

“Fortunately all you have to do to trigger this ’moral molecule’ is give someone a sign of trust,” he announced in his book The Moral Molecule. “The person being trusted experiences a surge of oxytocin that makes her less likely to hold back or cheat. The feeling of being trusted makes a person more… trustworthy. Which over time makes other people more inclined to trust… and creates a virtuous cycle.”

3. Trust in a business motivates investment

People who trust each other invest more into the relationship, so Zak set out to prove the relationship between trust and business performance mathematically. He discovered that levels of trust in social, economic and institutional environments influenced decisions to invest. Businesses verified as trustworthy by trusted sources attracted bigger investments.

He also says employees invest more of themselves in high-trust organisations, and experience a similar virtuous cycle of trust. More trust motivates more energy, productivity, collaboration and loyalty, fuelling stronger business performance.

These findings prompted his neuroscience research into what trust feels like – including the role of oxytocin.

“Businesses verified as trustworthy by trusted sources attracted bigger investments.”

4. Trust encourages innovation

People who feel trusted to make decisions without constant scrutiny are more likely to innovate.

“Failure is inevitable in the experimentation process… (therefore) conditions giving rise to psychological safety reduce fear of failure and promote experimentation,” noted four Harvard Business School academics in their report “The mixed effects of inconsistency on experimentation in organizations”, published in Organization Science in June 2004.

People under high evaluative pressure were less likely to experiment, while those under low evaluative pressure responded to inconsistent conditions with increased experimentation.

5. We’re wired to want to collaborate with friends

People prefer to tackle challenges with friends than strangers. Researchers at Rutgers University ran an investment game experiment, and found participants chose to invest more frequently with their friends than with an associate or computer, despite equal success rates.

When an investment risk paid off, MRI scans showed two parts of the brain associated with wellbeing and trust lit up more when people had chosen a close friend.

Reporting the results in the May 2015 Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers explained: “Decisions to engage in collaborative interactions require enduring considerable risk, yet provide the foundation for relationships. People receive a social value reward signal from reciprocation of collaborative decisions conditional on the closeness of the relationship.”

Read more:

How can accountants survive the public trust crisis?

Insights from CA ANZ’s Future of Trust report

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