maj 2011 | A Brain Check
What Is Oxytocin?
Robin Teigland, Associate Professor at the Department of Marketing and Strategy at the Stockholm School of Economics, came to Sweden from the USA in 1992. Since her days as a research associate, she has been fascinated by how people use their informal networks, offline and online, to carry out their work. She currently heads a large international research project on entrepreneurship and innovation within virtual worlds, that is to say, the three-dimensional internet of tomorrow.
Three years ago, Teigland won the Stockholm School of Economics Scientist of the Year Award. She is in demand as a speaker and has had several articles published in reputable international journals.
Scientists have discovered a hormone in the brain that explains why we engage in social media. Could you tell us something about it?
“Studies show that oxytocin, commonly known as the love or cuddle hormone, is secreted more when a person uses social media. One experiment showed a 13 percent increase of oxytocin in a person’s brain after they had Twittered for ten minutes, the same as in a bride. The stress hormone levels also fell. Paul Zak, Professor of Neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University in California, is behind this new research field.”
What is oxytocin?
“It’s a hormone and signal substance that sends positive signals to the body during friendly physical touch. It could be a hug or somebody putting their hand on your arm. Oxytocin controls several vital functions and is crucial to our survival. Previously it was thought to be a female hormone because it triggers breast milk production and creates an emotional bond between mother and child. Today we know that the hormone plays a significantly greater role than that, and for men as well. For example, oxytocin lowers the blood pressure and stress hormone levels. We become more sociable and in touch with our surroundings. All touch is addictive and the effects remain for some time.”
Paul Zak is also trying to find a link between empathy and generosity.
“I think we’re breaking new ground and there’s something in Paul Zak’s research. But I try to hold back on my opinions because I’m not a brain researcher. I’ve spoken to people who know more about brain research than I do and they say we are only in the infancy of brain research. One should also bear in mind that many of Zak’s studies have been carried out on a small group of people.”
Why is his research so important?
“Basically, I think it has to do with trends and priorities. He’s in a new field that we simply must investigate - it’s facinating. We also have to consider how fast it’s all happening. How long have Facebook and Twitter been around? We’ve hardly begun to understand the brain processes.”
A survey was conducted on 200 students in Maryland, USA, that showed they suffered a ‘hangover’ when they were banned from using their computers and mobile phones for a day. They missed their personal contacts more than anything. Could this be linked to oxytocin?
“I think so. You’re always looking to form relationships. You want to communicate, hold a dialogue and be acknowledged for what you do. According to Zak, when creating relationships we produce an oxytocin flow. I would think it has to do with that. We feel isolated when we’re cut off from our network and miss the dialogue and interactivity, thus the hangover.”
Based on Zak’s research findings, how should an organisation go about becoming successful?
“It’s basically about interactivity, which is extremely important. The more we communicate with each other, the more trust we get. I communicate with you and can perceive your behavioural patterns and attitudes. Interactivity makes it easier to form trust. Social media helps you create a dialogue with your customers. You can invite them in when developing products and customer services. Companies can no longer stand with a megaphone. That’s the greatest difference.”
Could you give some examples?
“We’re firmly lodged in our old way of seeing companies, which stems from the industrial revolution when we stood in factories and worked. Society has completely different productive forces these days. We must therefore change our basic perception of entrepreneurship. One company to have done this is eZ Systems, a Norwegian IT company with a workforce of 70. The company has 37,000 developers around the world, people who work for the company for nothing in a community and control the development of their products. The company gives its products away to large companies and organisations, like the UN, and sell their service to them. The whole concept is based on social media and a dialogue with the users.”
What do the people who develop this for nothing get out of it?
“That’s the interesting part because eZ Systems are not always aware of who the developer is. There are several reasons. One is the acknowledgment they get from their community colleagues, they are highly skilled so they get assignments. They learn and get support from each other. It’s a give and take. It’s very interesting to see a company break away from the old business norms, open up and invite customers and developers to take part in all the processes.
“Another example is Zappos, a marketplace for shoes and fashion garments. Their sales for 2008 totalled US $1 billion. The business began in the latter half of the 1990s and they say the only thing they focus on is customer service, customer service and customer service. All employees have Twitter accounts; all create dialogues. It’s also extremely transparent with everything online. You can even see what the CEO says to the employees at internal meetings. The CEO can Twitter about going to Brazil for a barbeque. Why should a CEO do that? Because it’s all about creating relationships. The better you get to know a person on a personal level, the stronger the professional relationship and the greater the trust.”
And even more oxytocin...
“Of course. If a company manages to build relationships, not only at business level but also at social level, the stronger the relationship and the greater the amounts of oxytocin. In the old days, the majority of a company’s customers were on a professional level, but today they understand the need for relationships on a social level. When Zappos’ CEO goes public with the news that he’s going to a barbeque in Brazil you could question whether a CEO should be saying this kind of thing to customers. Why is it interesting? Because they find out that he likes barbeques and travelling. This way they get to know him better. But it also means that I, who has a friend with a shoe factory in Brazil, can contact him and connect them. By being accessible in this way, Zappos creates a completely different type of transparency and opens up for a dialogue.”
Where do small private companies find the time for Twitter and Facebook?
“They need a whole new approach. Sending ten emails takes much longer than putting something on Facebook, where you come into contact with lots of people. Small companies have many more advantages these days. You can send ripples through your network by talking about your products and services. It’s a very effective method of word of mouth communication and marketing. As a small company, you have much greater advantages than you had fifteen or twenty years ago. You have access to people all over the world who would be interested in your products. You can go out and talk to people, invite them to take part in virtual worlds and development processes, and you can begin to compete with large international corporations who have always had the resources for global ventures.”
“We’re currently studying Machinima, a new way of producing films in a virtual world. A new film industry is emerging. We’re studying the ecosystems of entrepreneurs who are taking part. Where are they in the physical world? How do they interact in this virtual world? Today, anybody wanting to become a good director or actor has to seek physical clusters like Hollywood where knowledge is spread face-to-face. This opportunity now exists in the virtual world and that’s extremely fascinating. We’re also looking at what is happening in the traditional physical clusters and can see they are beginning to move into the virtual world. The fashion industry, with its photography, models and glittering fashion, is another sector in which the entire ecosystem is emerging in virtual worlds. Businesses have many more opportunities.”
How long will it take to become mainstream?
“Look back fifteen years at the internet, where were we then and how far have we come in such a short time? Look ten or fifteen years ahead at the three dimensional internet that will affect us all in many ways. We are still in the starting blocks of these developments.”
Three dimensional internet?
“IC You is a Swedish company that will soon be launching a 3D world, for smartphones initially. Their target group is football fans who gather in their club’s virtual world to watch a match together. Up to now, downloaded software has been required to make it work, but 3D browsers are under development for smartphones and tablet PCs. Rumour has it that Facebook has bought a 3D project and could be developing a 3D world, and Second Life has released a beta version of a 3D browser. Suddenly anyone with an internet connection can have a 3D world.”
“Many companies are looking into how they can use virtual worlds internally. IBM Academy has for years held a three-day conference for its top engineers and developers. In recent years, they have gone over to a virtual world. They claim it has been a great success with results as good as, if not better than, a physical meeting. It enables us to break through mental barriers in communication and avoid hierarchies and to create simulations and games. We can stimulate the imagination in a completely different way than in the physical world.”
How exactly do IBM Academy hold a meeting?
“I enter through my avatar in this world. An avatar is an image that represents a user; all participants have their own avatar. I can change avatars from day to day. A dragon, Batman, a cloud, myself or something else. Creativity is given plenty of legroom and I get to play something other than what I am in the physical world. I escape all the expectations put on me. Meetings organisers can also create different environments, like a beach, an office or a factory. Anyone can change it by pressing a key. We can watch films, chat, write, show PowerPoint images and produce things together. It all creates a feeling of being present at a meeting. It’s easier to remember details and experiences from a meeting, compared to a Skype or telephone meeting: ‘I remember when you drew that sketch or showed those pictures.’”
“I hold a monthly meeting in my Second Life project. I prefer to do it in a virtual world rather than by Skype or phone. You get a completely different feeling of being there. You project yourself on your avatar; feel as though you are actually in that world. Research shows that my pulse increases when my avatar starts running. There’s a connection with your avatar. Research is being conducted into this at Stanford and other universities.”
“In another interesting research project they gave test subjects avatars. Those given tall avatars were on average better negotiators than those given short avatars, regardless of how tall the persons were in reality. You not only project yourself onto your avatar but also on the other avatars: ‘This person seems like a good negotiator. No point in giving 100 percent.’ This connection, and how to influence creativity with the help of an avatar, is something I would really like to research into with a brain researcher.”
How many people use virtual worlds today?
“Roughly one billion. Fifty percent are in the seven to fifteen bracket if I remember correctly. When they start work later on, virtual worlds are second nature to them.”
In Meetings International 38/2010, Business Intelligence Analyst Jens Lanvin said that job dismissals and organisational changes have always been done behind closed doors and in private meetings. In the future, it could well be done in digital channels, but how should we go about it?
“There are already companies that recruit staff through virtual worlds, so why not dismissals as well? Teenagers break up by texting. I was born in 1964. My generation is used to building trust and communicating face-to-face; the younger generation has whole new ways of communicating. They develop other behavioural patterns, norms and ways of seeing how to trust people in digital media. We older people have to relearn, add the new way of being to the behaviour we already have. The new generation just learn.”
This could cause problems for the person who has to communicate with different generations, and, for example, dismiss a large group of people.
“It’s certainly a challenge for company managers. A workplace has a large generation span and each generation has its method of communicating. As a manager you have to know the best way to put across your message. This person wants face-to-face, while this group prefers communication in a virtual world. It’s all about good leadership.”
According to Jens Lanvin, ten percent of young people consider it okay to conduct a job interview on Facebook and in World of Warcraft. How is a job interview conducted in World of Warcraft?
“There are various guilds. One of my students was a member of a top guild in Europe. He said it was more difficult to become a member of that guild than to get a job at McKinsey. Job interviews are conducted in World of Warcraft in the same way as in the real world. You submit your CV, book a meeting and those who interview you check your references. Job interviews in a 3D world could also include simulations and role play, something that’s much more difficult to do in the real world. It brings a whole new dimension to the employment process. In the future, face-to-face communication could well give way to virtual communication. That’s where the interview is conducted because that’s the workplace.”
You mention seven or eight fundamental principles for social media and informal networks. These include a) self-regulating, b) control, and c) you have to give to receive. Could you elaborate on this?
“Giving to receive is definitely the most important principle. Control means you can’t control who talks to who, how and through which channels, etcetera. You can’t change people’s behaviour and control them. There are companies that ban Facebook during working hours. People do it anyway, they get around it somehow. So you can’t control them. For example, a company began using Facebook and their PR manager was asked if he wasn’t concerned about people writing things they shouldn’t about their products and staff, etcetera. He replied that they had no policy governing what their staff were allowed to write because his basic principle was that networking is self-regulating. He went on to describe an incident in which a member of staff wrote something inappropriate about a product they had launched. Within five minutes he’d received a message from another person in the network telling him it was inappropriate, upon which he deleted his text. Many managers are unnecessarily concerned and try to keep control. But people usually do what’s best, and that’s self-regulating.”
I’ve met managers who are concerned about people blogging and not getting any work done.
“This has to do with leadership. What kind of leader are you? What sort of reward system do you use? As an employee, you must be given work tasks to complete. You have to get people engaged in their work. There’s nothing wrong with the staff, it’s the leadership that’s at fault.”
And there’s nothing wrong with the technology either…
“No. What did people do before blogging and Facebook arrived? They probably took longer lunch breaks, chatted on the phone, wrote a lot of emails. There are people who don’t do their jobs regardless of the technology. This has led to managers checking how long people spend on Facebook and banning them from using it when in actual fact it’s a management issue.”
“I heard an interesting debate where smoking was taken as an example of how long it has taken to develop new forms of behaviour. Twitter has only been around for four or five years so it’s not strange that we haven’t yet developed ways of handling social networking.”
How should companies and organisations approach it?
“They have to form a dialogue instead of trying to ignore the problem. They have to ask: ‘How shall we use social media, what guidelines do we have, how can we use it to improve our competitive edge, create more innovations, increase sales and improve customer service?’ When they don’t take up the debate and go into denial over the problem it becomes worse. They have to use the internet in the best possible way. But sitting on the internet for hours doing private things isn’t good either.”
“I’ve spoken to companies that have closed Facebook and claimed it’s saved them time. Did they know what their staff were doing there? No, they didn’t. They could have been working. If somebody were to look at me, I spend a lot of time on Facebook. I work there. I share things, I learn and can ask somebody in my network for help and get a reply. It’s all about discussing how to use social networks in a business environment.”
Today, we are building online virtual networks. What makes you so interested in this particular subject?
“My father is a professor in theoretical organic chemistry. I began playing online games with others in the university’s network in 1978–79. I was born in 1964. My father bought a powerful computer for the university and I dressed up as a computer for Halloween in 1973. When I was 15 my father told me to learn to typewrite. I replied that I wasn’t planning on becoming a secretary, to which he said that everybody would soon have a computer on their desk. I took a course and I’m glad I did.”
“I’ve been on the internet technology bandwagon since it started. I researched a lot into online communities in the late 1990s when they began to arrive; mailing lists and discussion forums, for example. I could see back then how many people used it in their work and informal networks.”
Why do we have a need to create virtual resemblances of our realities and social networks?
“There are different explanations. One is that people have the urge to discover what goes and what doesn’t go. Another is that we gladly communicate. Put two people in a room with a strict order not to communicate and they will anyway. When we create a new way to communicate; we become curious and want to learn all about it. We also like to fantasise, create narratives and be creative. New technology is a fantastic platform for that.”
Is it mainly males who dedicate their time to virtual worlds and avatars?
“No. It’s about fifty-fifty.”
Why is the relationship between people and avatars so important?
“We don’t know enough about this yet, which is why I advocate getting brain researchers involved. I’d like to know what happens in the brain when my avatar does things. As I mentioned before, research shows that when my avatar starts running my pulse increases. I project myself in my avatar. There’s also medical research that shows that if you give a large person in very poor shape a slim and fit avatar then that person starts thinking like a slim person and begins changing their behaviour patterns. The more you do it the more you become like your avatar, and vice versa.”
That sounds like mental training. The brain cannot differentiate between what you think and what you do. What you do during meditation, you can later do in the physical world.
“There could be something in that. A teacher at the Linnaeus University in Växjö, Sweden, teaches Business English in Second Life. His students come from all over the world. He uses roleplay when he has to enter a relationship with his avatar. He’s taught the course in the physical world for many years and says that the situation is completely different in Second Life. Students are less afraid to try things; they get over the learning threshold much quicker and learn things faster.”
How important is it for you to be anonymous?
“I have two avatars. One is my professional avatar and the other my anonymous avatar that I use when researching. I don’t always want them to know who I am as it could affect the way others act and the answers I get.
“A company, the name of which I can’t recall, wanted feedback for an organisational change they had done, so they asked in Second Life. The CEO had an avatar that everybody recognised. The employees could choose an anonymous avatar and speak their minds in an open dialogue. This created a whole new transparency and the company got better feedback on what needed to be improved.”
So the avatar you choose has a great significance?
“Research shows that if you have a large, ugly and off-putting avatar people won’t talk with you as they would if it were pleasant and inviting. And just like in the physical world, my avatar doesn’t want anybody standing too close. If your avatar gets too close then I back off. It feels uncomfortable. We’re creatures of habit and take things we feel in the physical world into our virtual world.”
In her book Generation Y, British author Zadie Smith questions whether we are aware of what the program does with us. Is it possible that the things people divulge online finally becomes the truth about them?
“Not many of us are aware of what the program does with us and not many of us think about it. Also, I’m not sure we reflect over how our communication changes when, for example, we start a new school or join a new gang.”
Despite everything, people do embarrass themselves on forums.
“Yes, that’s true but people have always embarrassed themselves.”
Absolutely, I’ve done it myself more than once…
“Exactly! But it can now have more far-reaching consequences. I have discussions with my 16-year-old: ‘You must always consider the situation you find yourself in and the way you act. You never know who’s writing about you or putting a picture of you online. There’s nothing you can do about it, it’s out there.’ We must keep an open dialogue. But a lot of people are too naïve. I saw somewhere that there exists an alcohol lock-out device for the internet. That’s fascinating. But it’s important. There are people who after a few glasses of wine decide to contact their ex-partner. Such a device might make us think twice!”
What’s coming after 3D?
“We’re facing some exciting changes. There’s talk of semantic web, which makes it possible for machines to understand the meaning of online information, and of collective intelligence, one of my areas of interest. Avatars will, of course, develop. With special contact lenses and three dimensional objects, you will be able to do things with the object using your fingers. We will have digital wallpaper and virtual worlds without a screen or mouse but a sensor that reads what you do. We’re only in the infancy and can’t see where developments are leading. I’d love to return in a hundred years or so and see what’s happened.”