The Trust Molecule

Paul J. Zak, author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, asks “Could a single molecule—one chemical substance—lie at the very center of our moral lives?” in the Wall Street Journal:

Research that I have done over the past decade suggests that a chemical messenger called oxytocin accounts for why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted louts, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life, why some husbands are more faithful than others, and why women tend to be nicer and more generous than men. In our blood and in the brain, oxytocin appears to be the chemical elixir that creates bonds of trust not just in our intimate relationships but also in our business dealings, in politics and in society at large.

Known primarily as a female reproductive hormone, oxytocin controls contractions during labor, which is where many women encounter it as Pitocin, the synthetic version that doctors inject in expectant mothers to induce delivery. Oxytocin is also responsible for the calm, focused attention that mothers lavish on their babies while breast-feeding. And it is abundant, too, on wedding nights (we hope) because it helps to create the warm glow that both women and men feel during sex, a massage or even a hug.

Since 2001, my colleagues and I have conducted a number of experiments showing that when someone’s level of oxytocin goes up, he or she responds more generously and caringly, even with complete strangers. As a benchmark for measuring behavior, we relied on the willingness of our subjects to share real money with others in real time. To measure the increase in oxytocin, we took their blood and analyzed it. Money comes in conveniently measurable units, which meant that we were able to quantify the increase in generosity by the amount someone was willing to share. We were then able to correlate these numbers with the increase in oxytocin found in the blood…

[continues in the Wall Street Journal]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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11 Comments on "The Trust Molecule"

  1. how can i trust that i can trust this article?

  2. Jesus Borg | Apr 29, 2012 at 10:46 am |

    i wonder if some people feed on other peoples oxytocin without producing any in return? would explain a lot obout cult leaders and other psychopath/con artists.

  3. mole_face | Apr 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm |

    Supplementing with oxytocin will induce feelings of trust – but it’s disingenuous to claim that an “oxytocin deficiency” is the root cause of distrustful behavior.

    That’s like saying that the stress hormone cortisol is the cause of PTSD. It’s technically true – cortisol is directly implicated in PTSD – and if you somehow stop the brain from releasing cortisol, it would certainly stamp out the unwanted symptoms. But severe external stress was the only reason the brain ended up releasing cortisol in the first place. That’s just how the brain physically expresses stress, so the presence of high levels of cortisol in the brain is only a physical brain disorder in the loosest sense – unless you think it’s logical to claim that going to war, being abused as a child etc. somehow gives a person a brain disease.

    People with trust issues lack oxytocin in their brains because they lack trust, not the other way around. Oxytocin is just a chemical that the brain uses to express feelings of trust.

    I suspect that articles like this will eventually be used to make the case for distrustful citizens to be drugged with a “medication” that induces inappropriate feelings of trust, all under the guise that the medication will be fixing something wrong with their brains.

    • I pretty much agree with your sentiments here (especially about the forced doping that this will “justify”), except that there would clearly be a carry-over effect related to Oxytocin. That is, if Oxytocin were released in response to a specific mating activity, that same Oxytocin would also influence behavior toward other members of the household or community.

      Likewise, lack of trust in general leads to a lack of fulfilling relationships and thus no release of Oxytocin.

      Basic vicious and virtuous cycles.

      There are always going to be specific cases where a trust was seriously breached and the distrust that ensues is based on “rational” reasons. I think those cases need a slightly different model than the one the researcher develops in the full article.

      I know a few un-trusting and un-generous people. In general if I take them out to dinner (my treat) and give them appropriate physical affection (hand-shake and a hug, arm draped across their shoulders for a moment as we walk side-by-side, etc) they really open up. Become happier, friendlier and even more generous.

      The effect last for a while, but when they get back into the isolated rut that comprises their normal life, they close back down.

      By the same token, the mental state of a guy or gal who just got laid is cliche.

      In any case, the non-pharmacological therapeutic potential for this model is quite high.

      • mole_face | Apr 30, 2012 at 9:22 pm |

        Yeah – externally elevating oxytocin levels in the brain would definitely change some people for the better. I mainly just disagree with the fact that articles like this always employ the disease/brain disorder premise, which is really nothing more than a marketing ploy designed to make people willingly self-administer social control drugs meant to re-engineer their behavior.

        I’m assuming that this sort of marketing strategy is only necessary because we live in a society that’s spent the last century telling its citizens that it’s immoral to cover up emotional/mental problems with artificially mood-altering drugs. So the legal medications are always stated in terms of them correcting a physical problem with the brain – when in reality the drugs are just forcing the brain into a different chemical configuration to stamp out unwanted behaviors.

        This article’s premise is similar to saying that scientists have discovered the root cause of crying, and it turns out that it’s due to fluid coming out of a person’s tear ducts. Technically true, but you’re just restating the underlying physical process that defines the act of crying. And if you figure out some way to stop tears from coming out of the tear ducts, you’ll certainly stop someone from crying – but it doesn’t address the cause of the behavior, and it definitely doesn’t address a physical disorder.

  4. giving reason for psycho-the-rapist to say that distrust of the gov’t should be included in the next DSM

  5. What are we exactly saying here?That a person that has this love or caring feeling due to higher level of oxytocin can limit these feelings by decreasing oxytocin levels?What is responsible for higher or lower levels of this hormone?

  6. The only thing to get is money | Apr 29, 2012 at 11:59 pm |

    Living (and dead) organisms are biological machines. Until we fully accept this, these things will always seem mysterious. Which they are not.

  7. “Could a single molecule—one chemical substance—lie at the very center of our moral lives?”

    A decade ago serotonin was the wonder chemical that regulated mood, before that  dopamine levels were supposed to redulate everything that’s wrong with us. It turns out that the mind is more complicated than that. Now oxitocin is the rising star in the molecule of the month club. In ten years time (let’s say) vasopressin will be hailed as the key to the human brain, and it will again be a gross oversimplification.

  8. Erick Chastain-Rivas | May 1, 2012 at 12:52 am |

    Paul Zak is pretty notorious for exaggerating results, both in his papers and in the newspapers. In the following article, he basically claims that oxytocin will solve all the world’s problems. He is also carrying a ginormous heart that is bigger than his body: 

    Do you really want to trust anything this guys says? Nobody else in his field does. We all laugh at him behind his back.

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