The data seemed to suggest that the recognition of trust-competent social interactions was being mediated by oxytocin(Drug information on oxytocin) release. However, because association never means causation, the next experiments involved intervention protocols. What if oxytocin levels were artificially supplied to the participants? Would their behavior change? If that were true, supplying oxytocin to the subjects might increase the percentage of giving to the strangers on the computer.
Oxytocin was formulated to work as an inhalant, and 200 subjects in the experimental group were exposed to the peptide. Consistent with the hypothesis (although perhaps in contradiction to previous baseline findings), there was an increase in the amount of money the subjects gave to their cognate strangers (about 17% more). An unexpected finding also emerged. A large number of oxytocin-treated subjects (almost half) gave their entire cash amounts to their partners! This was very different from the controls and may have been the most revealing part of the experiment. With apologies to Fritz Perls, it appeared that elevated levels of oxytocin in the brain produced a background “trust gestalt” in the subjects that made them much more willing to part with their money.
These are certainly interesting results, but before we encourage grocery store managers to pretreat their stores with aerosolized oxytocin (air-soluble oxytocin, at least as configured by the researchers, is very easy to detect, by the way), a few cautions might be in order.
The effects, while dramatic in some participants, had no noticeable effects on other members of the group. Elevating oxytocin levels in these unresponsive populations was simply not enough to coax them to project positive faith into their social interactions. This unevenness suggests that feelings of trust have many complex components, and oxytocin, while prominent, may not be a one-size-fits-all explanation for everyone’s trusting behaviors. Moreover, it was not the absolute levels of oxytocin that predicted the trusting behavior but the rise in levels from a baseline. This is an important insight because, if you recall, initial baseline levels in the subjects did not predict their generosity—the acute change did.
There are also environmental issues to consider that were suggested by this change-over-baseline finding. There is evidence that people have oxytocin “set points”—a thermostatesque mechanism that can be deeply influenced by environmental issues, including stress. How stressed you are may thus profoundly influence your ability to rise from your baseline. Because the peptide normally interacts with a wide variety of biochemicals throughout the body (levels can fluctuate on an hourly basis), your ability to trust may depend on the time of day. There may even be sex considerations. Estrogen increases the uptake of exogenously supplied oxytocin to specific tissues in the body. If you are female, your ability to trust may not only depend on the time of the day but also on the time of the month.
Finally, there are definitional issues to consider. Most economists believe that 2 different events are being measured in these experiments. Only the subject’s behavior involves measurable trust, at least by current definitions. The stranger’s behavior is classified differently; he is exhibiting what is being termed “trustworthiness.” Are these the same? Are they different? Are they parts of a continuum? Semantics? Both subject and stranger seemed to respond to oxytocin, but exactly what that means is not necessarily straightforward.
None of these comments are deal-breakers, of course, but simply represent the growing edge of some really fascinating findings. The data also predict something about the future way of thinking about things and even a new academic unit. The man most responsible for these findings, Paul Zak, is not a brain scientist at all. He is an economist, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, at Claremont Graduate University (he was trained in neuroimaging while in a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University).
As a brain scientist who has spent many years navigating the gap between basic research and business, I might be suspicious of such a background. However, his findings and those of his colleagues are compelling stuff. On a distrustful day, perhaps I can borrow one of Paul’s inhalants.