Toying with people’s emotions: A cognitive theory of DevRel


Don Goodman-Wilson

Job title




DevRelCon Prague 2022

Why do we do what we do when we do DevRel? Why do personal relationships count for so much? How do we avoid annoying our developers? What incentives do developers have to join our community? As a profession, we have a range of questions like these that cry out for a theory to help guide our decision making.

Don draws from his background both in academic neuroscience and philosophy  to reveal that there’s a lot we can learn about our craft when we examine the neurochemical processes that underlie goodwill, love, and trust. We wield a surprising amount of power over others! But with this power comes the risk of toying with people’s emotions, exploiting them, turning them off of our product, or worse yet, annoying them. Understanding the power we have over others is important for not only doing our job well, but doing our job ethically.

Key Takeaways

  • Developer relations is a practice of cultivating developer love. If we want to cultivate developer love, we have to trigger oxytocin release.
  • Successful developer relations programs engage in patterns of repeated activities that demonstrate kindness for developers.
  • Making an effort with developers, and making them feel special and included, goes a long way in building community relationships. It’s always about lifting developers up. Make developers a hero of their own story.
  • Building strong relationships based on kindness and respect is the essence of a DevRel role. Do things that encourage others to build personal relationships.
  • We have a moral obligation as DevRel people. We must be sensitive to the emotional effects of our actions on community members.
  • Oxytocin can increase the propensity for self-serving group deception, where the unity of a group leads to a distortion of the way they see things. It can create a tendency to perceive the group in an overly favourable way.  Communities are fragile and have a natural ingrained tendency towards toxicity. Oxytocin makes entire communities sensitive to the negative treatment of individual members, making them easy to break. Treating people with disrespect will kill your community.
  • Failing developer relations programs are those that engage in activities that demonstrate a lack of respect for developers.

Don’s talk

Watch Don’s talk on Youtube


Don: Yeah, so good news and bad news. Good news. This is the last talk of the day before happy hour! Bad news. We have over 80 slides to get through in 25 minutes. Thank you. 


There it is. So, yeah, as Matthew you mentioned, I love bridging topics. I love asking why. Karin’s talk earlier today really spoke to me. Everything she said on stage, I agree with 100%, and I think reflects a lot of the way that I approach developer relations. But I love asking why. And what I want to do is dig into the sorts of things that Karin was talking about earlier – this is not deliberate, this is happenstance – and ask why. 

Why do these things work? Why do certain things that we do in developer relations work for us, and other things that we do maybe don’t work so well for us? And so I want to present a theory. A neurocognitive theory of developer relations that allows us to make these kinds of decisions. So, some fun facts about me that you likely didn’t know. You definitely didn’t know them if you didn’t know me before, and if you do know me, you probably still don’t know them.

Don’s background

So I did four years of postgraduate studies, studying cognitive neuroscience. I was actually going to be a cognitive scientist at one point. It didn’t really pan out, but it was a lot of fun. And I spent a lot of time studying at a fairly high level as you do early in your graduate career, how the brain works. But I did do a PhD in philosophy, analysing the metaphysics and epistemology of 20th century neurophysiology, so I’m really interested in the scientific method and why it works, whether it works? And I did this through the lens of Hodgkin and Huxley’s seminal experiments in the squid giant axon. That’s small squid giant axon. I was really disappointed to learn it wasn’t the giant squid giant axon. It is just a really big axon.

And so you can like, literally dissect a single cell, and learn a lot about how neurons work as a result of it. So this is just to give you a few bonafides as to what…. maybe I might be qualified to talk about these things. Maybe. This is a long time ago. But I want to start with this before we get to the neuroscience, before we get to developer relations. 

What makes people choose one place over another?

This is my local pasteleria in Lisboa. So, London has pubs, Amsterdam has brown bars, America has Starbucks. And in Lisboa, we have the pasteleria. And it does everything, not just pastries, but especially pastries. This one is mine. I have to walk past three other ones, including one that’s literally next door to my building to get to this one. Why? I love this question. And the answer is actually very simple.

The first time I went here, I was just on the street. It was happenstance. I went in there, and I had a very good experience. The owner was very friendly, he was very encouraging of my nascent and really bad Portuguese. The food was good, of course, but I felt welcome. And so I thought, I’m going to come back to this place. And I came back to this place, and I encountered other different employees who were working there, who were even more welcoming, more considerate, more encouraging of learning the language. And I fell in love with it. I’ve never been to the other three. I don’t care, right? Two times of feeling really welcome, and I will make the trek 10 minutes down the road to go to this one instead.

How can we relate this to DevRel?

I think this is very related to the work that we do, right? We want our developers in our community to have that sort of reaction to us. Oh, yeah, I could have gone to the big name, but I’m going to go to the startup because you have welcomed me. You’ve made me feel included. You’ve created a space for me to thrive and succeed. And I want to understand at a very, very fundamental, like chemical level, how this works. How can we harness this for our own nefarious ends? And maybe make a few novel predictions along the way. 

First, the science…

So chapter one, let’s talk neurochemistry. What even is a neurotransmitter? We’re going to talk about neurotransmitters today. Who knows what a neurotransmitter is? A few people in the audience, that’s not bad.

So the neurotransmitters are the chemical mechanism that facilitate communication between and among neurons in the brain and the rest of the body. And it’s not just neurons, but your muscles are communicated to you by these being emitted by neurons, and so on and so forth, right? Hunger is the result of your stomach telling your neurons via neurotransmitters. And they’re pretty interesting in fact, because, unlike electrical signals, which come in three forms (high voltage, low voltage, floating voltage) – I used to be an electrical engineer too (!) -, there’s over a hundred different kinds of neurotransmitters, right? And you probably know some of these names, right? 

What’s really fascinating about this system is that because there are so many of them, this variety allows for differentiated signalling. So there is a purpose for each of these neurotransmitters. Each one of them is responsible for a very specific kind of message, right? Serotonin is a neurotransmitter of happiness, for example. Norepinephrine is the neurotransmitter for infatuation, and crushes and excitement, right? And I’m blanking because there are no presenter notes on the one that you get when you get high. But there’s one for that too. 

Let’s talk the good stuff

Anyway, there’s a neurotransmitter for everything. Every possible human behaviour that we can exhibit. There’s a neurotransmitter that at least partially explains that behaviour because they co-occur. But I want to talk about one neurotransmitter in particular. I want to talk about Oxytocin.

Oxytocin is some good stuff. It is probably the most powerful drug known. It is the neurotransmitter of connection and bonding. Now, you see why this is relevant, don’t you? It facilitates attachment between individuals. It increases awareness of social cues. It increases empathy. There’s a word we like to throw around. It is the neurological underpinning of trust. It increases feelings of attachment and bonding. It enhances social memory. It creates a sense of belonging. There are scientific studies that back all of these claims up, right?

Oxytocin = community

Oxytocin is literally love. Very much so. So take away number one. If you’re going to take a picture of a slide, this is a good one, right? Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter responsible for love, like long-term romantic love. Oxytocin is also literally community. This is a neurotransmitter responsible for bonding behaviours, for connection between people, for a sense of belonging, for the creation of an in-group, right? When you want to build community – I don’t know anybody in this room who’s into that sort of thing – we need oxytocin.

Group bonding

So take away two. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter responsible for group bonding. I’m actually regretting some of these slides because the previous one was much more photogenic. Chapter two, triggering oxytocin release. So, sounds pretty good. What do you have to do to get these sorts of, um, benefits? Well, it turns out it’s fairly intuitive. We can make some pretty good guesses about the kinds of things that are going to trigger oxytocin release. but there’s a lot of science behind this as well. Feeling welcome, receiving a genuine compliment, a heartfelt compliment, knowing that you’re being talked about.

This came up in conversation at the speaker’s dinner last night. We all love, I mean, being bragged on is one thing, but hearing somebody else has been breaking on you behind your back is an entirely different thing. It’s a different level. Receiving helpful advice, timely targeted, context sensitive, helpful advice. Being listened to, seeing people nod along, right? Having your problem solved, that’s always a good one. Doesn’t have to be that. Hearing a relatable story – a story where you can go: ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about’.

What triggers oxytocin release?

Having your feelings or opinions validated. All of this is a very common sense sort of thing. Receiving something of value in a context sensitive way. This one’s a little more complex, and we’re going to talk about this a little bit more, but simply receiving something of value. Like, I hand you a 20 euro bill, and it’s nice, but it’s not going to trigger oxytocin release, right? But something that’s meaningful. My consultancy is called It’s a play on my name. Don. A guy brought me from Japan, a little plastic bowl of Katsudon, right? I needed a key chain. He didn’t know that. But it’s perfect, right? It was a very thoughtful gift. Recognition that you are part of the ‘in-group’.

So take away three, treating people with kindness and respect triggers oxytocin release. Those of you who’ve come to my earlier darker talks on this sort of topic know that kindness and respect is a running theme in many of the things that I talk about. But that’s pretty simple.

Repeated, consistent action necessary for oxytocin release

But, and here’s the catch, doing it once doesn’t work. Doing it once triggers serotonin, and possibly norepinephrine, which is why I mentioned those earlier. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter of happiness. Of course, we’re happy when we receive a compliment or a gift. And norepinephrine is the neurotransmitter for infatuation or crushes, or excitement, right? And that’s also nice too. We like these things, but doing it only once does not trigger oxytocin release. You have to do these things in a repeated and consistent manner over time, over, and over, and over again to see oxytocin release in response to these actions that you take. So you can’t just leave it at the first time.

So, takeaway four, repeated, consistent action of the kinds described earlier are necessary for oxytocin release. We’re building up to something here, I promise.

Welcome to the Dark Side…

It’s chapter three. This is the dark part, when it all goes wrong. This is my favourite part of the talk too, apparently. Nobody’s ever accused me of being cheerful. So there’s a dark side to oxytocin, right? It’s not all just like fluttering hearts, and happiness, and stickers. It has a lot of very negative effects on individuals. It increases in particular ‘group think’, which is your inclination to think in the same way as other members of the in-group that you perceive yourself to be a part of. There’s some words missing from that end into that sentence, but I think you understand what I’m trying to say. 

It increases a propensity for group serving deception. You are more likely to lie on behalf of your in-group in the presence of oxytocin. People now are, I imagine, I certainly do, are thinking about toxic communities. Toxic communities are the natural outcome of oxytocin-led community growth. Unless you take precautions otherwise, it increases sensitivity to contagion cues. Content warning, vomiting.

There’s a well-known phenomenon that you are more likely to vomit when you see other people vomiting, right? This is oxytocin. It’s more likely when it’s somebody in your family or somebody in your in-group, right? This is just a thing that oxytocin does. It’s a thought to be an evolutionary response to keep the herd safe, essentially, right? When somebody eats something bad, for the same reason, it increases the magnitude of fear responses in response to an attack on the in-group. And it increases the magnitude of anger responses in response to a perceived attack on the in-group. This is a problem. 

Oxytocin makes breaking hearts go viral f**king fast. I’m going to drop a few f-bombs in this talk, I apologise. But this is a really, really important point, right? It’s very powerful to build community, to build developer love. And we’ll get more into the developer part of this in a moment, but the downside is that that community has a fragility to it. It has a natural ingrained tendency towards toxicity. It has a natural breaking point that’s very, very easy to find, and we don’t want to do that. So oxytocin is literally community.

So take away five. Oxytocin makes entire communities sensitive to the negative treatment of individual members. So building up oxytocin required consistent and repeated action. Breaking communities does not. It takes one action. One. Resilient communities might take a little more than that to break, right? But oxytocin goes away very quickly upon negative treatment.

The ‘love’ business

So chapter five, let’s put all of this together into a general unified theory of developer relations. So, developer relations is a practice of cultivating developer love. Prior to last month, I thought this was a metaphor. I am now convinced this is literally the truth. We are in the love business. And that’s not so bad, right? Except we’re also dealing in drugs.

Thankfully, we don’t have to make the drugs, our customers make them for us. But cultivating developer love means triggering oxytocin release. Literally, the two are indistinguishable. We have to do these things. If we want to cultivate developer love, we have to trigger oxytocin release. So theory one, our jobs are done well when we trigger oxytocin release, right? 

We need community, we need love for our product. We need love from our developers, and we can evaluate the job that we’re doing based on qualitative estimations of oxytocin release in the form of people saying nice things or coming back to our events over and over, right? This is a very broad theory. I’m not going to suggest metrics for this sort of thing, right? Corollary, our jobs are done poorly. Otherwise, if we are not doing things to trigger oxytocin release among our developers, we are wasting our time.

What are we doing? Well, I mean, we might be doing administrative work, that’s fair. But otherwise, we shouldn’t be doing those things, right? I’m skipping ahead. Theories are testable. These are both theories. Theories are testable. I’m a guy after the scientific method. 

The power of kindness and respect

The testable hypothesis one. Treating people with kindness and respect will improve your numbers more than anything else you could do on a person by person basis. That writer is really important because treating people with kindness and respect is really difficult to scale. There are lots of things that we can do to scale that might generate better numbers for us overall, but when you compare things on a person by person basis, then these sorts of behaviours are going to do much better. And so the trick then is finding ways to get it to scale. I have thoughts on that too, and I imagine you do as well.

Disrespect kills communities

Testable hypothesis two. Treating people with disrespect will kill your community. We have a couple of concrete examples of this. I’m so sorry. Andy Piper, if you’re watching this, I love to talk about the Twitter API s**tfest of 2013, when they locked out all of their third party developers, right? And their developer community instantly turned against them. I’m sure we can think of more examples of this sort of thing, right? But this is the danger of what we’re doing. And it also gives us a litmus test for programs. 

Devising programs that trigger oxytocin

If we want to decide whether or not we’re going to do a particular thing in our job, we can ask, are there repeatable mechanisms available that trigger oxytocin release? And will those efforts yield movements in our North Star metrics? I only add that last bit because we’re in DevRel, right? And we care about metrics because our bosses care about metrics, but we have to do that, right? So that means that programs that don’t trigger oxytocin serve no purpose. Bad news, blog posts and stickers are not good enough.

That said, sometimes they can be, but as a whole, they’re not. So, I’m going to say something awful, and I’m so sorry, because I know people put stickers on that table out there. But if it’s just your logo, it’s not connecting with anybody. It’s not triggering oxytocin release. It’s not making people feel included and welcomed and part of the in-group. It’s not giving them a compliment or giving them something in a context sensitive way, right? 

Sense of belonging

But this is why GitHub stickers were so, so popular – they did do that. Like: ‘Oh, look, I’ve got the rare one. I’m part of the special in-group’, right? I can’t remember who I was talking to over lunch. They had a program of having cohorts of stickers that would expire over time so that, you know, forced, like limited editions or something like that.

And that helped serve that purpose too of creating a sense of status and belonging in an end group. So, stickers can play this role, but you have to think very carefully about the narrative that you want to craft. I don’t have my laptop up here, but we can all look at each of our laptops that have stickers on them, and each of those stickers as a story. That’s why we put them on the laptop, right? And those stickers identify us as belonging to certain communities that we feel a connection to. Those stickers are on our laptops because they triggered oxytocin release, not the other way around. 

It’s never about you

Likewise with blog posts. I’m sorry. Nobody really wants to read your latest product update, or stuff on your tech stack, unless again, like with the stickers, there is a story that you can tell that explains why this is going to be of value to somebody. There’s going to be timely advice to give them. I mean, SEO purposes aside, stopping blog posts is probably the first thing I tell my clients to do. It’s not timely.

Breaking about your latest release is not good enough. I see this from some companies. I worked for some companies that did this in the past. They think: ‘Oh, this is connecting with the community’. No, no, it’s not really. I mean, yes, it’s a post on social media and some people liked it, but it’s not triggering oxytocin release. And it’s not going to have any kind of lasting impact on your community, because it’s never about you. It’s never about you. I’ve heard this several times over the day, and I love it. 

It’s always about them. It’s always about lifting them up, making them feel valued, treating them with respect – the developers that we care about. So, make developers a hero of their own story. This is an easy way to do this. People love being the hero of their own story. And do things that build personal relationships. And again, this is another theme that’s come up over and over again today. But a consequence of the theory that I’m trying to offer here, is that that’s actually our job. It’s not just something that we should consider doing. This is all we should be doing. Do things that encourage others to build personal relationships, because there’s not enough of you to go around to do things at scale.

Oxytocin is crucial for developer love, strong communities

And take away six. Developer love and strong communities depend upon oxytocin. I’ll leave that one up for a moment because I see some cameras up. But triggering oxytocin release means we are toying with people’s emotions, right? Many of us, I’m sure have had our emotions toyed with by a lover or a friend. We’re kind of in the same boat. We have to be super duper careful with what we do because our job is akin to getting developers hooked on ‘molly’ at scale. Akin’s a bit of a weak word. This is our job.

But it’s ‘insert company name here’, branded molly, right? There’s a swag option, right? With no oversight. There’s no regulatory body except, you know, don’t do what Twitter did. That’s not good enough. That’s really not good enough.

Moral obligation

So take away seven. We have to be, and this must be in italics because it has moral weight, okay? We have a moral obligation and virtue of our jobs, and the things that we have tasked ourselves to do to be sensitive to the emotional effects of our actions. And we have the additional consequences of getting fired for destroying our community, to help bring that one home as well. So at last, let’s summarise oxytocin and you. 

In summary

Let’s take takeaway one, in case you missed these. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter responsible for love. Take away two. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter responsible for group bonding. Take away three – treating people with kindness and respect triggers oxytocin. Pretty straightforward stuff. 

Take away four. But repeated, consistent action is necessary for oxytocin release. You can’t just do it once, you don’t get oxytocin, you get something else. Take away five. Oxytocin makes the entire community sensitive to the negative treatment of individual members. Extremely sensitive, not just mildly sensitive. Six: developer love in strong communities depend upon oxytocin. That’s to say our job depends upon oxytocin, but we must be sensitive to the emotional effects of our actions. We carry a lot of weight and responsibility in our jobs and virtue of this very simple fact.


So, first conclusion: successful developer relations programs engage in patterns of repeated activities that demonstrate kindness and respect for developers. I like that.

In conclusion two, failing developer relations programs are ones that engage in activities that demonstrate a lack of respect for developers. And I have seen several of these in my time, and they don’t exist anymore. None of them do.

Corollary, this is really important. Kindness and respect are table stakes. You can and should go much further. There are some very, very powerful communities built on the back of calculated oxytocin release that are problematic, like white supremacists on Twitter. Very powerfully bonded community. But that’s not the kind of community we want to build. It’s very, very easy to use these tools that I’ve given you to build a toxic community. We’ve seen that. There’s lots of reasons to think that. 

So you really need to think hard about DEI. You need to think about your values. You need to think about your long-term goals. You need to think about community sustainability. There’s so much more that goes on top of this, right? This is not sufficient. It’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient to succeed at developer relations.

So that’s it. That’s my talk. That’s my theory. I would love to hear your experience with these sorts of things. I would like to hear if you get a chance to actually test some of these hypotheses, how it’s going for you. I want to know, like, does this have validity? Does this resonate with you? I’m the director at I mentioned we’re a developer relations consultancy. We help early stage startups build successful developer relations programs and strategies for developer relations. I would love to work with you, if you’re interested in that sort of thing. And I’m Don Goodman- Wilson. Thank you.

Presenter: So, I think we’ve got time for a couple of questions if you are happy to?

Don: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah,

Audience member 1: Yeah. Hello again.

Don: I was looking forward to this moment.

Audience member 1: Yeah, I’ll just buy my own mic next time. It’s fine. So if this oxytocin is the same as in dating – love and DevRel stuff – then giving them DevRel stuff has a much higher chance of opportunity. Aren’t we going to kill Tinder?

Don: Only if that’s your end goal. It was not Socrates, it was Aristotle who pointed out that there are a dozen different kinds of love, right? All of them can be traced oxytocin. Well, most of them can be traced oxytocin, but it’s not just romantic love. No, I don’t think we’re at any risk there. Please don’t fall in love with your developers.

Presenter: Anybody else with a question for Don?

Audience member 2: It’s me.

Don: It’s you.

Audience member 2: Hi, my name’s Dan. First time caller, longtime listener. So, my question actually is piggybacking off that first one, frankly. Could this, at least partially, if not entirely, explain another darker side of building up personal brand and building up your social media presence that can lead to frankly negative outcomes, in the form of stalkers and so on and so forth? And, do you have any ideas on how you can bring people into the fold, hopefully without then going to those darker more negative spaces?

Don: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think we have a lot of puzzle pieces that we can put together to build an explanation about those sort of dark behaviours, right? I think that sounds very plausible as an explanation. I don’t know if I’ve quite got it together enough in my head to answer fully what it would look like. 

But I think maybe, and I’m just making this up right now as I go along, just like everything else, cults of personality, broadly speaking result, when there is one central figure who is responsible for generating oxytocin amongst the followers of that cult of personality, right? Elon Musk gets off on people being really nice to him, right? And he does things that encourage that sort of behaviour, right?

Whether he knows it or not, he’s a master manipulator of people and making them feel love specifically for him. I think that when you put things like that, it becomes clear to me that when we’re doing community building, it can’t be the ‘community of me’. It can’t be the ‘community of Don’. 

This is part of the reason why I never lend my personal brand to my clients because I want their communities to attach to them, not to me. Right? And I think that, as a general rule, we should probably not be building communities like this. I mean, we know how dangerous benevolent dictators for life are, right? Okay. Maybe, we don’t, you’re shaking your head.

Yeah. Well, there’s a difference between a benevolent dictator and a benevolent dictator for life. Yeah. We have to be careful of cults of personality, and we have to be careful in building personal brands that we’re not doing that. And I think when we’re building communities, it’s really, really important that we make sure that we attach those communities to the right things, and not to people, not to individuals.

Obviously you can only form relationships with people, but you want to do that in a way that it transfers to the organisation, not to the individuals representing that organisation. This is probably my talk next year. We’ll see. It feels like a long topic to explore, but it is really insightful. 

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