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How can you use objects to bond people?

I was doing an internship when the pandemic hit at a finance/accounting firm in central London. I remember one of the nicest things my employer did was to surprise us all with a gift from one of our portfolio companies, Whittard. Mine had three hot chocolates in it and I remember thinking it made my day when I got it, and I loved being able to share it with my housemates and I was reminded of the act of kindness every time I looked at the canisters sitting on my shelf.

We all go through difficult times at work. Whether it’s pandemics, quarter end or recessions, there are always reasons to be stressed that interfere with purpose and productivity. A lot of the time, what gets us through times like this are the relationships we have with people we trust.

This week, I'm going to explain what momentos are, why they work and provide ideas for how you can use momentos to improve hybrid workplace communities. A memento is something that reminds someone of a person, place, event, etc. When I was looking into why memories can be tied so closely to objects, I found a link between mementos and dopamine that explain why objects can be powerful reinforcers of behaviour and identity.

Dopamine, mementos and memories, what’s the link?

I’m not a neurochemist, so I started off by trying to understand the reason objects are able to elicit such a strong response. You’ve probably had that feeling when you hold a photograph and feel transported back to a great night with friends, or felt a sinking feeling in your chest when you’ve lost a gift from someone you love, and I wanted to understand why that feeling happens.

When we receive things we like, it triggers our reward system, releasing dopamine into the brain. Dopamine is fascinating, because it can elicit behaviour changes, increase memory and reduce metacognition (thinking about what you’re thinking about) which can be useful in where information or behaviours need to be reinforced. Additionally, the reduction of metacognition allows for better bonding because it can remove feelings of judgement and negative self-perception.

Not all objects are equal, of course. When asked what people would save from a burning house most said either photographs or gifts like I just mentioned. Some objects are also closely tied to current identity, like tote bags or your favourite graphic t-shirt. These objects don’t remind us of moments- but they can remind us of who we are.

A word of caution on memory design and dopamine

Mementos aren’t the only things that trigger dopamine. Dopamine can be released by things like giving, the smell of brownies out of the oven or social connection. In memory design, a constant between elements like sensory immersion and emotional engagement is the release of dopamine to increase positive sentiments towards products or experiences.

A word of caution here. Using memory design on people is powerful, and shouldn’t be misused as a manipulation tactic or as a bandaid for fundamentals like trust, appreciation or respect in your communities. If the high of a positive experience causes follow ups involving stressful situations that release cortisol or other stress hormones, these tactics will backfire eventually. Memory design should be used as an add-on for organisations that want to enhance an already positive experience. Trauma bonding is a pressing issue in high stakes environments and creating highs that lead to unhealthy cycles of spending or working must not be normalised.

Additionally, there are sustainability considerations to be made when using momentos. Make sure you ask your suppliers questions around what materials are used, how people in factories are treated and how far goods have to travel. If you want to know more about sustainable recruiting/ HR practices, has some great suggestions on how to start.

How can you use momentos to bond your communities?

Using momentos can create positive associations to bond your employees and encourage them to spend more time together (triggering even more dopamine through social connection and belonging). Below are three ideas you can try to increase visible identity, sensory immersion and emotional engagement.

  • Identity, have branded merch that people actually want to wear (aesthetics matter, people have to like what you’re