At conferences, Paul J. Zak likes to hold up a syringe and squirt a watery substance into the air. “After ten years of experiments, I found it,” he claimed in July 2011. “The moral molecule, oxytocin.” But don’t judge this molecule by its nondescript appearance, its implications may be far-reaching.
Zak found the protein oxytocin to significantly effect trust in human interactions. In experimental trust games, the founding Director of the
Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University (California) observed that people share more money with counterparts when their oxytocin levels are high. The experiments, which measured nine other molecules and random allocation of money to a control group, identified oxytocin as the key driver of trust.
As payment for participating in the experiment, subjects are offered $10. They can share a fraction, all or none of the money with an unknown counterpart. Whatever they share is deducted from their $10 and tripled in the other’s account.
Person #2 has the opportunity to return a proportion, all or no money. “We found 90% of the first decision-makers sent money. Of those who received money, 95% returned some of it. Why? Because the more money the second person received, the more oxytocin their brain produced. The more oxytocin present in the subject, the more money they returned.” For oxytocin read trust, and trust rises and falls according to the counterpart’s actions.
A faulty oxytocin system may play a part in depression and Alzheimer’s disease Paul J. Zak
In a related experiment, the team increased oxytocin in the subjects’ body through a nasal inhaler. “We put 200 men on oxytocin or a placebo and found that those on oxytocin not only showed more trust, but that the number of people who sent all money to a stranger more than doubled.”
The same molecule increases generosity and donations to charity according to Zak. “Oxytocin connects us to other people, it makes us feel what other people feel. We also adjust the physiological basis of social interaction over time as estrogen increases the uptake of oxytocin in the body’s tissues and progesterone reduces it.”
Zak’s findings could have far-reaching ramifications. “Dr. Love,” as he is nicknamed for his oxytocin-releasing habit of hugging strangers, now researches the moral molecule’s role in social disorders. Initial findings suggest that people suffering from autism may have an oxytocin receptor dysfunction. “A faulty oxytocin system may also play a part in schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease.”
Paul J. Zak
Paul graduated with a PhD in economics from University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) in 1994. He is an associated professor of economics at the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University (California) with a focus on integrating neuroscience and economics into neuroeconomics. He is the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies.
Concerns about targeted manipulation by disseminating oxytocin in a roomful of potential investors are unfounded, Zak assures. Oxytocin dissolves rapidly and to have a measurable effect on humans’ behavior, it has to be administered directly.
Yet, there are still reservations about the findings in some areas of academia. Paul Seabright, an economist at the University of Toulouse, observes that the molecule offers a promising field of research, but adds: “Speculation about oxytocin still outruns hard evidence. We don’t know enough about how it works.”
The concept of reciprocity certainly works in favor of Dr. Love. By providing hands-on explanations for complex human behavior he is much loved and widely quoted by the media, thanks in large part to a rather unassuming, watery substance.