How to Infect Your Readers with the “Trust Drug”

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When I was 19 years old – the age of a man’s sexual peak, I’m told – I watched a play about inappropriate touching.

The play unfolded during a religious retreat meant to mold young minds. And to show what proper behavior was.

Case in point: on stage, a teenager began to give the another a backrub.

“Oh man, my shoulders are sore,” says the girl. “Guess that calculus quiz really stressed me out.”

“Sorry to hear about that,” says the teenage boy. “Uhmm … how bout I gave you a back massage?”

“Really? You don’t mind?” she says, batting her eyes.

“Uh, no, no problem.” (Translation: Hell no, I don’t!)

The narrator paused the action right there. Such behavior, he said, was “easy familiarity” – and could lead to other things. A slippery slope down the back.

Roll your eyes if you like, dear reader, but I know of at least one innocent backrub that led to other activities.

And that may be because touching, like in massages, has been shown to unleash a bonding hormone called oxytocin.

You may have heard of oxytocin before – it’s been slapped with squeeze-worthy labels like the “cuddle hormone” and “love drug.”

Oxytocin floods a mother’s body when she hears her baby gurgle and coo, helping to bond the two together.

And a study on backrubs showed that oxytocin hits your brain when your back is kneaded and squeezed … even when it’s a stranger doing the squeezing!

And study after study show that an oxytocin-addled brain is a trusting brain. If someone squirts oxytocin into your nose, you become more trusting.

But here’s the catch …

It turns out that oxytocin only bonds us to people in our group, as I learned from Jonathan Haidt’s revealing book on morality, The Righteous Mind.

So that means that if you’re “high on O-T”, you become more willing to save a drowning child from your tribe … but no more willing to save a flailing stranger.

A study of Dutch men confirmed this. The Dutchmen, after exposed to oxytocin, trusted people on their “team” more, but didn’t feel like embracing outsiders.

So – what does this matter for you?

Well, it doesn’t take an educational skit to convince you that your prospects are more willing to buy from you if they trust you.

So if you could soak your direct mail envelopes in oxytocin, you’d be half way there.

But don’t go dusting off your chemistry set. ‘Cause you might get the same bang for your buck by telling a good sympathy story – a story designed to send us rushing for the kleenex box.

Stories about people suffering can boost oxytocin levels in viewers.

So when you tell a sob story to your prospect, you may well boost his oxytocin levels.

But – because O-T will only nudge him to trust a member of his own tribe, you better make sure that you are part of that tribe. Or that hormone dump will be wasted.

Well … not wasted. Let’s just say redirected to those closest to him, instead of to you.

(Though this could be to your advantage. True Move is a Thai phone company that tells heart-wrenching stories in their commercials. After you watch their tear-jerker, you might be more willing to rack up some long distance minutes on your phone plan. (Evidently, these kinds of commercials are a hot trend in Thailand. Check out the WSJ article below. The internet being what it is, people now watch these commercials and try not to cry as sort of contest.)

The good news is, people nowadays are part of lots of groups. You can build a common bond around any identity you share.

Business owners.

Cat lovers.

And so on.

That’s why an origin story is so powerful, where the product originator has faced challenge after challenge and suffered – just like you have. A good origin story can combine suffering and group opportunity into a double-punch combo.


Tell a sympathy story that’ll waft some trust-building oxytocin your reader’s way.



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Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry
Scott McKinstry is a direct response copywriter who specializes in telling stories. You can contact Scott and learn more about using the power of stories in marketing at
Showing 8 comments
  • Reply

    Another brilliant piece, Scott.

    I’ve been reading “Meet Your Happy Chemicals” – eye opening stuff.

    Thanks for always bringing it.


    • Reply

      Thanks, Kev!
      Interesting book — and, by the way, her bio blurb is a tidy 60 Second Sales Hook:

      “Loretta Graziano Breuning is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which helps people manage the ups and downs of their mammalian brain chemicals.
      As a professor and a mom, she was not convinced by prevailing theories of human motivation.
      She learned that our brain chemicals are inherited from earlier animals, and they evolved to reward survival action, not to make you happy all the time. The world suddenly made sense, and she wanted to help others make peace with their inner mammal.
      She created a wide range of resources, all available at”

      I like the “make peace with their inner mammal.” Good stuff.

  • Reply

    Where’s the “Like” button …

  • Reply

    Is there a difference in tonality with a sympathy story when geared towards male vs. female?
    Curious. thanks for this… great stuff!

    • Reply

      Hey Patty, good question. I may not be the best guy to ask about this (since I probably love romantic comedies more than my wife does).

      But I think it’s probably more about the telling a story with a subject matter that resonates with the audience, rather than a male/female distinction.

      Take the classic male tear-jerker Brian’s Song (football, courage) or the should-be-outlawed “Cats in The Cradle” (fatherhood, work-life balance) song by Harry Chapin.

  • Reply

    You said:
    “So that means that if you’re “high on O-T”, you become more willing to save a drowning child from your tribe … but no more willing to save a flailing stranger.

    NOW I UNDERSTAND why the social experiment which compared the results between a bearded, dirty man begging with a sign that read “Need money for alcohol and drugs” and a young mother and 6-ish daughter with a sign that read “Need money for food” produced so much more for the drug-addled dude than the starving mother. People identified him as a member of their own tribe.

    Of course!

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Episode 52 - The Feminine Fueled Future of Marketing with Sacha Lalla