Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus, which is responsible for a number of major autonomic (or unconscious, like breathing) functions of the body.
Oxytocin is sometimes called the cuddle chemical or the hug hormone. It’s a natural classification. Oxytocin is released naturally as a part of childbirth and is associated with maternal behavior and social attachment.
However, it goes much beyond this. More recent research has shown it’s important in the formation of trust. People dosed with oxytocin are more willing to trust their money with strangers. Some researchers think this is because they are also more able to read facial expressions and emotional states.
On the dark side of oxytocin, while it promotes trust with in-group members, it also increases distrust of foreigners and outgroup members (study here).
More to the point of nonprofit direct marketing, when people empathize with a story, oxytocin levels are on average 47% higher. (study here) (More so among women than men, which is perhaps why women are more likely to empathize and give charitably).
This translates to additional giving. Subjects who received oxytocin gave to 57% more causes and 56% more money after exposure to PSAs (study).
But that’s nothing compared with what is possible. In the same study, they looked at what happened when people experienced increases in both oxytocin and a fast-acting arousal hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (which people abbreviate ACTH for obvious reasons). When the PSA increased both of these, giving increases 261%.
This means that the story has to both arouse empathy (releasing oxytocin) and draw the person in (stimulating ACTH).
So how do you do that with your narrative?
First thing is to take what your high school English teacher taught you about the five-act structure of plays, where you have rising action, leading to a climax, then a falling action that leads to a resolution. Remember that? (You may even remember the term Freytag’s pyramid, in which case, good job, Hermione.)
Now crumple it into a ball, throw it away, and try to forget it ever existed. As we’ve said before, all pyramids are lies. Even in the two-minute video that Zak used to test his subjects, attention tended to drift until tension raised again. This is far less Freytag’s pyramid and far more the latest Avengers movie, where there has to be a tension set piece every so often to hold interest.
The goals are emotional resonance and attention holding. When you have a narrative that does that, you release oxytocin and ACTH. And when you do that, you get donations.
We’ve talked a lot about ways to do this, imagery and specific details being particular favorites. However, when it boils down to it, take a look at your story. If there are any paragraphs, sentences or words (especially adverbs!) that don’t help one identify with the people in the story or hold the attention of the reader/listener/watcher, cut it.
It’s brutal, but you need to hold attention and create empathy with it in order to succeed.
Tomorrow, we’ll get out of chemistry and into how people make decisions.