I’ve written before on this blog about the role of the human brain to ensure survival. Man is a social animal, so a good part of our survival programming is focused on getting along well with other humans. In studies watching people think about future interactions with others, scientists have been able to actually see which parts of the brain are stimulated when a positive interaction is anticipated, versus the stimulation that occurs when thinking about an interaction that is believed will be negative or painful. While we are thinking about these possible events, our brains respond exactly as though the event were already taking place. So if we are thinking about something positive, our brain sends chemicals, including dopamine, that trigger a reward response—basically, that make us feel good. If we are envisioning a difficult conversation, however, our brain will trigger a response to stress or danger. We may feel anxious, fearful, or angry.

The neuroscience of influence

Another study has taken this idea a step further by observing brains trying to “sell” ideas to other people. One group was assigned the role of the “intern.” Group members were told to bring movie ideas to members of the other group, the “producer,” and convince these people to make movies from their ideas. Interns were assigned these ideas, which they were supposed to “sell.”

By viewing a live MRI scan during the experiment, scientists discovered that they could accurately predict whether or not a producer would “buy” an idea by looking at two responses in the brain: anticipated reward and “the salesperson effect.” If the intern believed that her idea would be accepted, her brain produced chemicals that delivered a positive feeling of success. She literally experienced her success in her mind before it happened. If the intern did not believe the idea would be accepted, it generally wasn’t. This is pretty much what common sense might tell us, right? We’ve all been told that positive thinking yields better results than negative thinking, and this research confirms that intuitive belief.

The salesperson effect

Now the second factor gets very interesting. In addition to this “reward behavior predictor,” scientists also found that some people were just more convincing than others. When these people spoke about their ideas, the same area of the brain was stimulated in the intern’s brain and in the producer’s. In other words, the presenter was able to trigger the reward stimulus in another person’s brain. The scientists called this the “salesperson effect.”

It is not clear if this effect is the result of some sort of innate ability or brain structure, or something that can be developed over time. Further studies likely will answer those questions. Soon it may be possible to hire salespeople by watching their MRIs as they attempt to sell something to another participant. We might be able to determine a leader’s communication skills by measuring the strength of his salesperson effect on team members’ brains. If we can discover the mechanism that is triggering this effect, we may be able to even train people to enhance this ability. Recruiters might be able to encourage applicants to be excited about their jobs, or the company that is hiring them.

Where do we go from here?

Discoveries in neuroscience are tantalizing us with their potential to change the way we view human capital. What else would you like to see explained by neuroscience? Please share in the comment box below.

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