Your Brain on Close Friends versus Pseudo Friends

You may have a few gazillion friends on Facebook. And perhaps you may have hit that magical 500-connections ceiling on LinkedIn. But only an acquaintance or close friend with whom you feel a genuine rapport — i.e. who speaks the “same language” as you — is going to light up your brain in ways that mirror your friend’s.

Now, presumably, there is a device that can prove it, providing you can get your hands on one.

Princeton University psychologists and Drexel University biomedical engineers teamed up to create a wearable brain-imaging device to explore how brains sync up when people communicate. (See “Measuring speaker-listener neural coupling with functional near infrared spectroscopy” in Scientific Reports, 2017.) The device is worn like a headband and uses near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). Prior studies employed Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), but this did not allow testing two-way communication.

The idea behind the research was to see if higher degrees of brain-to-brain synchronization between a speaker and a listener were correlated with understanding. Studies show that seems to be the case.

What does all this have to do with Motivational Styles?

I don’t think it is too much of a leap to suggest these findings help explain why people of the same Motivational Style have a kind of built-in rapport. In other words, they are already wired to understand someone of the same motivational ilk. Subject to the same experimental controls, this cognitive bias would undoubtedly reveal itself in the same regions of the brain that were under examination: the prefrontal and parietal areas. These regions are connected with thinking, beliefs, desires, and goals — the very attributes that individuals who share the same Motivational Style have in common.

Perhaps the results are not so surprising? After all, anyone upon seeing a close friend can feel the warmth in their heart and see the light reflected in their friend’s eyes. We don’t need a brain-imaging device to prove a higher degree of neural coupling is taking place. Nevertheless, thank you Science for proving what many of us already recognize as evident. And without empirical evidence, many of us would be at a loss to believe anything that did not quite fit our world view.

Most companies themselves have a prevailing culture that typically reflects a dominant Motivational Style. This, also, should come as no surprise. For example, a global risk management company engaged Minds+Motives to perform a management study that included training in our principles. Most people scored as Discerners. However, there was one exception, a lone employee who scored as an Advocate. When we met to share our analysis, we were informed the employee had just quit. “We never saw eye-to-eye,” they said. “We seemed to operate from a different planet.”  (Were we recruited earlier, in all likelihood we could have saved the Advocate’s job by bringing more understanding to the workplace.)

If a feeling of rapport and mutual understanding is at the basis of friendship, shouldn’t that also hold true for defining the optimum customer experience, as well as keeping employees happy in the workplace? And if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be of vital importance to recognize that rapport is built on something that goes beyond features and benefits, or, in the case of an employee, their salary?

We hear an awful lot about accruing “likes” and “friends” these days. We don’t hear a lot about what makes someone like something or be a friend in the first place. By that I mean the cognitive basis for why we feel a greater affinity for some activities and people rather than others.

Is there a way to use this learning in marketing applications? Of course, there is.  But only through knowing how to build rapport in the first place.

Let’s take an example from the natural world. When two systems resonate at the same frequency they may arrive at specific pitch wherein one part greatly amplifies the other. At that moment, we can say they are in “rapport.” Take a kid on a swing. Knowing when to push will make the swing go higher and keep the momentum going smoothly. But if you push too early or too late someone can get hurt.

The best friendships are greater than the sum of their parts. Why? Because they operate from a place of mutual understanding. Each partner raises the other to a greater height than they could achieve on their own. When it comes to business and customer relationships, you can’t do better than that. Products and services evolve to meet the needs of a receptive and loyal audience that is willing to honestly communicate their feelings and expectations so all are better served.

There is no industry that cannot benefit from building greater rapport with its audience. Take, for example, financial services. Recently, Minds+Motives launched DALBAR Resonance, a new program designed to raise the level of rapport between wholesalers and Financial Advisers, and Financial Advisers and their clients, as well as target more efficiently.  (For more information, interested parties are invited to visit: )

Okay, in case you feel I have ventured too far from my initial point at the top of this blog, let me summarize:

  1. Science tells us that our brains light up when we are in sync with another speaker.
  2. Being in sync occurs where there is understanding, i.e. when there is a shared language.
  3. Without understanding, there is no resonance.
  4. No language is more telling, and perhaps more intimate (as in personal) than the language of Motivational Styles.

If, when communicating with your closest friends, you were to parse your words and your manner of expression, you would find they are rooted in at least one shared trait along the continuums that define Motivational Styles. So, whether you know it or not, when it comes to the language of Motivational Styles, you are already speaking one of the main dialects — and you can bet your close friends are speaking the same native tongue. Indeed, that’s why you’re friends.

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