June 20, 2014

Neurochemical effects of conversation behaviors

Many scholars have pointed out that people generally are affected more strongly by negative than by positive occurrences (see for example this). For example, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer found in their research that the impact of setbacks was two to three times as strong as the impact of progress (read more). The same thing seems to be happening in conversations. People appear to be (negatively) affected stronger by negative occurrences in conversations, such as being criticized and rejected, than they are (positively) affected by positive occurrences in conversations, such as being taken seriously and appreciated.

In a new article Judith Glaser explains that neurochemical processes play an important role in this. Glaser explains that our body responds to negative occurrences by producing more cortisol. This is a hormone which suppresses our capacity for clear and nuanced thinking and puts us in a defensive mode. To positive occurrences, our body responds by producing more oxytocin. This hormone makes us more open and trusting, which enhances our communication skills.

The effects of cortisol hold on longer that the effects of oxytcin, which may partly explain why we seem to be affected more strongly by negative than by positive things being said to us. Glaser presented managers with a list of behaviors in conversations and asked them how often they engaged in these behaviors. Some of these behaviors are cortisol producing behaviors, others were oxytocin producing. She found the following results.


Progress-focused communication seems to me to be a great way to keep cortisol levels low and oxytocin levels high.

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