The Chemistry Between Us: Roles of Hormones in Leadership, Trust, and Well-Being

Understanding the invisible biochemical processes going on inside ourselves and others helps us explain the visible behaviors that affect teamwork and productivity. We can also take steps to positively influence biofeedback loops.

Have you ever noticed how a dog will look into your eyes, as if it understands your emotions? It turns out that dogs, more than any other species, share a special trust bond with humans, and it’s partly based on the same chemical bond that we humans experience when building trust among ourselves. Experiments show that when dogs and their owners stare into each other’s eyes, they experience a release of the same bonding and trust hormone, called oxytocin, shared between a nursing mother and her child. In fact, one study found that owners that spent the most time gazing at their dogs experienced a 300% increase in oxytocin levels, while their pets saw a 130% rise. It’s amazing that our beloved canine companions and we can share a single chemical compound that draws closer together in a circle of trust and affection. That chemical creates a positive feedback loop, where a trusting gesture like gazing or touching releases oxytocin, which reinforces feelings of trust, which primes the body for more trusting gestures, which releases more oxytocin, and so on. But oxytocin isn’t the only chemical wonder going on inside of us affecting our well-being.

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Gazing into your dog’s eyes, as well as touching, releases the bonding and trust-building hormone oxytocin in both of you. Picture Source: https://www.rover.com/blog/how-to-know-if-your-dog-is-bonded-to-you-in/

Hormones Affecting Behavior and Emotions

Our bodies are constantly experiencing a complex pattern of chemical reactions, with more than 200 hormones or hormone-like substances coursing through our veins, influencing behavior—the elixirs of life. The word hormone comes from the Greek word for “excite” or “spur on,” illustrating the role that these chemicals play in triggering our moods and behaviors. Why is this important in leadership? Because in dealing with other people, our understanding of the invisible processes going on inside ourselves and others will help explain the visible manifestations of behaviors that affect teamwork and productivity. Furthermore, we have some control over the flow of these chemicals by intervening in the feedback loop systems. In this article, I will outline the leadership- and relationship-relevant functions of several important hormones, and provide some practical tips on how to influence biochemistry for more positive effects. I will go through the substances one-by-one, but with the caveat that this is a greatly simplified version of a highly complex, interconnected process. These bio-chemicals interact with each other and with other body chemicals in ways that are still not fully understood—but scientists have produced some insightful and useful knowledge in recent years that make this both an interesting and helpful topic for review.

Aside from the bonding and trust hormone oxytocin (which is technically a neurohypophysial peptide, but we’ll spare you the dizzying technical terms and call all of these chemicals “hormones”), there are three other significant hormones associated with happiness, well-being, and positive social interactions among humans: serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. They all have multiple functions in the body, but include significant influences on our ability to socialize with other people, set and pursue goals, and generally improve ourselves and the human condition. Complicating the picture are at least two chemicals that can interfere with, counteract, or in some not yet fully understood ways negatively influence the pro-social effects of the “happiness hormones”: testosterone and cortisol. Let’s take a closer look at each of these influences on our emotions and behaviors.

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Hormones of Happiness and Well-Being

Oxytocin – The Bonding and Trust Hormone

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Picture source: http://ignitordigital.com/brand-building-new-linkbuilding/

Imaging that you are playing a game with another person, a stranger. You are an “investor” who has been given 12 dollars. You can keep all that money for yourself, or you can “invest” any part, from nothing up to all of it, with that stranger, a “trustee,” who was also given 12 dollars at the start of the game. When you give over that money to the trustee, the amount triples as it goes into his account. Now, that trustee can decide to send any amount from his account back to you, from nothing at all, up to his entire account. At the end of this game, you get to keep whatever you kept for yourself of the 12 dollars, PLUS whatever the trustee returns back to you. The trustee gets to keep whatever he has that he did not give back to you. If you don’t trust him with any money, you get 12 dollars, and he gets 12 dollars (unless he was REALLY generous and gave you money even if you didn’t invest with him). But if you gave him some money, and he returns some to you, you could both be much better off than just 12 dollars each. The dilemma for you, as the investor, is whether to trust that this complete stranger will return your original investment and go even further to return at least some of the increased amount…this is why it is called the trust game. The more trust you give, the more the overall system benefits by increased money available…but will you get your “fair share” of the increase?

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A team of scientists performed this game as an experiment, with the added twist of measuring and administering oxytocin to participants, publishing the results in a paper in 2005. Their work established a strong link between oxytocin and trust. They found that the trustee, receiving money as a sign of trust, caused the brain to produce oxytocin. Additionally, the amount of oxytocin produced accurately predicted trustworthiness of the trustee in returning money back to the investor. When they had the investor players inhale synthetic oxytocin, those players trusted the strangers with 17% more money and were twice as likely to send their entire amount of money to the trustee.

Oxytocin was first recognized for its role in women, specifically involved with giving birth and nursing. A mother just after giving birth has her system flooded with the chemical, and infant-mother interaction of gazing, touching, or suckling activates oxytocin’s role in starting milk flow into the breast. Upon further investigation, scientists found that it appeared to play a role in creating an emotional bond between mother and child as well, and that even fathers were influenced by oxytocin when gazing into the eyes and playing with their children, which increased bonding interaction and commitment to the offspring. It appears that oxytocin lowers our fears and anxieties associated with trusting other people, and subsequent research has shown that it increases our empathy toward others.

So, if oxytocin is the “trust hormone,” why don’t we just spray a few squirts into our noses to create an empathetic, loving world? Because it’s not that simple, and the functions of oxytocin are complex and still not fully understood. In fact, administering oxytocin to some people may have the opposite effect, particularly if they are naturally distrustful of outsiders. Another interesting study showed that oxytocin increases the behavior of lying, if the subject felt lying would benefit their in-group, while another study found that it increased negative feelings of sons toward their mothers’ parenting styles IF they were experiencing anxiety in their present relationships with other people.

Nevertheless, scientists have shown that oxytocin levels are associated with higher trust and social bonding. At the least, it appears to make the brain more aware of social cues. People with higher levels of oxytocin, particularly a certain genetic version of it, showed in one study more trustworthy behaviors that signaled kindness to strangers, such as nodding the head in empathy, making eye contact, reflecting a sincere smile, or displaying open body posture. Displaying trustworthy behaviors increases oxytocin in the recipients in a positive feedback loop. Psychiatrist Shawn Achor, in his excellent book The Happiness Advantage, explains, “When we make a positive social connection, the pleasure-inducing hormone oxytocin is released into our bloodstream, immediately reducing anxiety and improving concentration and focus.”[1] It’s clear that increased oxytocin is linked to more positive social relationships—but it doesn’t act alone. In fact, very recent research has found that it has a close relationship with the next hormone in our list, serotonin.

Serotonin – The Significance and Pride Hormone

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Serotonin is a versatile hormone that humans share with many other animals, including worms and sea slugs! 80% of a human’s serotonin is produced in our digestive system, and it plays a large role in regulating appetite; but as anyone who has been snapped at by a hungry colleague who missed lunch, it is heavily implicated in general mood as well. It works in concert with many other hormones and body chemicals, making its functions wide-ranging. In fact, abnormal levels of serotonin have been associated with…are you ready… addictions, attention deficit disorder, chronic pain, depression, dysthymia, eating disorders, headache, obsessive-compulsive disorders, panic, poor impulse control, post-traumatic stress disorders, premenstrual syndrome, sleep disorders, stress disorders, sudden cardiac death and violence. Whew!

On the positive side, it appears to help regulate our moods as well as appetites, bringing emotional stability, reduced anxiety, tranquility and focus. Serotonin increases in ourselves, and those attached to us, when we feel proud, such as when we have done something significant and important. The child performing well on her first piano recital shares a shot of serotonin while her proud parents in the audience also experience the same serotonin surge. Leaders in animal packs, and human leaders, have been found to have elevated levels of serotonin, which gives them confidence and contributes to an aura of leadership. A pair of UCLA scientists, Michael McGuire and Michael Raleigh, conducted a study of the social order of vervet monkeys, finding that those higher up in the hierarchy had nearly twice as much serotonin in their blood. When a challenger replaced one of these leaders, the winner’s serotonin levels shot up, while the loser’s levels fell precipitously. The serotonin-leader connection wasn’t limited to monkeys, McGuire and Raleigh found. Sampling UCLA fraternity boys, the officer leaders had about 25% higher levels of serotonin than regular members.

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Serotonin levels were higher in leaders of vervet monkey groups and in fraternity officers in studies by UCLA scientists.
At the same time that serotonin is associated with leadership, it has a pro-social effect that seems to prevent more leaders from being out-of-control dictators. In its regulating function, it suppresses our primitive impulses, such as violence, or aggressive feeding and sex. That’s why it has been involved in prescriptive drugs of choice for several decades now that regulate abnormal or violent behavior. Another study of monkeys found that those serotonin-loaded leaders displayed fewer acts of aggression or violence against others, whereas the lower-ranking members with low serotonin tended to act more aggressively. The leaders, bolstered by the confidence that comes with the serotonin abundance, could maintain their position more with their aura of self-assuredness than with violence. In the same way, human leaders, with the elevated serotonin levels, appear to be able to remain more calm and self-confident, and experience lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Serotonin, like the bonding and trust hormone oxytocin with which it interacts, fuels a positive loop feedback system, in which higher levels give more pride and confidence, which makes it easier to accomplish significant acts, which injects more serotonin. Both serotonin and oxytocin may be triggering our brain’s reward systems, and two of the other hormones, dopamine and endorphins, are great at giving our bodies rewards.

Happiness and Bliss:

Dopamine – The Goal Reaching and Reward Hormone

Endorphins – The Pushing Through Pain Hormone

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Dopamine gives us that satisfying, almost addicting pleasurable feeling when we strive for a goal and achieve it. Its effect is closely related to the pride effect from serotonin. Dopamine and serotonin can give us competitive advantages in life. As positive psychologist advocate Shawn Achor explains, “Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels. They help us organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster later on. And they enable us to make and sustain more neural connections, which allows us to think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things.”[2]

Dopamine influences and motivates us with the promise of its pleasure. Without sufficient levels of dopamine, we tend to procrastinate, lose self-confidence, and generally lack enthusiasm for making and achieving goals. With dopamine, we strive harder, we have more energy, and are generally happier…at least for a while. The downside of dopamine, as well as endorphins, is that their positive effects tend to be short-lived in the body.

Endorphins don’t motivate so much as help us push through pain to reach a goal, so that we can get that dopamine rush. Endorphins are released into our system when we’re experiencing pain or stress, and they act to suppress our perception of pain. If you’ve ever done a long-distance run and experienced a “second wind” of energy, or perhaps pushed through a rough day at the office and found energy picking up later in the day, you may be experiencing the effects of endorphins.

Complicating Components:

Testosterone – The Assertiveness & Competitiveness Hormone

Cortisol – The Stress Hormone

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I hesitate to call our final two actors, testosterone and cortisol, the “bad guys,” because the picture is more complicated than just good or bad chemicals; but these two can both have counter-acting effects that work against the positive social influences of the hormones discussed above. They aren’t all bad in their effects. Testosterone, in the right amounts, spurs people on in competition and achieving physically demanding tasks. One study of indigenous people in the Amazon forest showed that successful hunters experienced a surge of testosterone after a kill, which not only gave them an elated feeling of success, but also chemically accelerated muscle regeneration. Testosterone also has an effect similar to serotonin, in giving one a feeling of confidence that can have positive impacts on work performance. On the downside, however, testosterone is associated with anti-social behaviors of aggression. It may have an effect of inhibiting oxytocin (although the interaction is not yet completely understood). One study that administered synthetic testosterone to a group of men found that those men were less generous toward others as well as more demanding.

Cortisol has an even greater inhibiting effect on oxytocin, as well as inducing other negative physical effects associated with stress. Cortisol is actually a “survival” hormone that helps people who are in physical danger, which is when it is released by the body. Cortisol causes that anxious, but alert, feeling you get when you feel threatened, and causes many physical changes, such as increased heart and breathing rate, and re-direction of internal energy stores, that prepare your body for “fight or flight.” The problem with cortisol, however, is that it can cause long-term ill effects, and it doesn’t discriminate well between real physical dangers and perceived threats such as work-pressure stress that doesn’t require the “fight or flight” response. It can lead to high blood pressure, a suppressed immune system (because your immune system isn’t required in a “fight or flight” scenario), and interference with oxytocin. This means that when we feel stressed or threatened at work, we experience less of the trust- and bond-building effects of oxytocin, and we act less team-oriented.

Managing Your Chemistry

The good news is that there are ways to manage this multitudinous mixture of biochemicals  to increase our trust, leadership potential, and well-being…we can make inputs to improve the feedback loops. The following are specific actions we can take, associated with the main hormone to be affected:

To Increase Oxytocin

  • Initiate trust. Just like in the Trust game, when we take the first step in extending trust to another, we generate oxytocin in them. It can be risky, but worthwhile.
  • Extend friendship and be generous. When we acknowledge people in our social circle, and are generous with time and resources, we show trust that increases oxytocin.
  • Exhibit trustworthy physical behaviors: engaged listening with head nods, eye contact, sincere smiling, and using an open body posture.

To Increase Serotonin

  • Contemplate significance in your work. Link your work to its larger positive effects, and take pride in your contribution.
  • Practice gratitude and reflect on past accomplishments regularly. Try writing a diary of “Three Thankfuls” at the end of every day, acknowledging three situations or relationships for which you are grateful.
  • Get fresh air and sun, which promotes serotonin production.
  • Eat a proper diet. According to Dr. Judith J. Wurtman, serotonin in the brain can be made only after sweet or starchy carbohydrates are eaten. This is because the building block of serotonin in the brain, a chemical called tryptophan, cannot pass through the body-brain barrier if certain amino acids are more numerous, and eating sweet or starchy foods clears those obstacles. Another reason to maintain good nutrition is the energy consumption of the brain itself—it’s only 2% of body weight, but consumes 20% of glucose (sugars) in the body, and it can’t store the glucose for later use. If the brain isn’t getting energy, it will go into its own survival mode that’s not conducive to productivity or positive social interaction.

To Increase Dopamine

  • Set a series of progressive goals to get increments of dopamine rushes. Take a little time to celebrate accomplishments.
  • Recognize achievements of team members and direct reports.

To Increase Endorphins

  • Regular exercise provides a good source of stress that results in endorphin release. This also has the added benefit of lowering cortisol levels.
  • Scientists have shown that laughter can release endorphins and have positive physical effects. Those funny animal videos on YouTube aren’t all wasted time (in moderation, of course)!
  • Inhale aromas such as vanilla, lavender, or eat foods such as dark chocolate or capsicum (spicy peppers).

To Decrease Cortisol and Get the Positive Effects of Testosterone

  • Power Pose—making a confident posture pose for 2 minutes. Although there is a vigorous debate on the science behind this, Dr. Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED talk on “Your body language shapes who you are,” viewed nearly 40 million times, argues that making a confident posture regularly for two minutes increases confidence through raised testosterone levels and lowered cortisol levels.

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Dr. Amy Cuddy demonstrates a “Power Pose” that gives biofeedback to your body, lowering cortisol and boosting testosterone.
The fields of medicine, psychology, neuroscience, and economics that inform us about our bodies and the influences of biological chemicals is changing and advancing at an exciting pace. The above discussion has summarized some of the more significant findings of the relation of hormones and other chemicals to our social behaviors. Leaders don’t need to be biological scientists to be effective, but a basic understanding of those internal processes going on inside of us and the people with whom we interact will benefit our ability to inspire and lead!

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

[1] Sean Achor, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology the Fuel Success and Performance at Work, New York: Crown Business, 2010, p. 177.

[2] Ibid, p. 44.

Author: CummingsRL

Lt. Col. Robert Cummings, completed his PhD dissertation on the Thai-Chinese community in Hat Yai at Chulalongkorn University. He has an MA-International Studies and MBA. A retired US Air Force command pilot and Asian Affairs specialist, he served as assistant professor of history at the Air Force Academy and assistant air attaché in the US Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand. Conversationally fluent in Chinese and Thai, he currently resides in Thailand.

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