Paul Zak on Trust, morality — and oxytocin?

By Paul Walker 15/07/2014 4


From TED talks comes this video (recorded at TED Global, July 2011, in Edinburg, Scotland. Duration: 16:35) which asks the question, What drives our desire to behave morally? Neuroeconomist Paul Zak shows why he believes oxytocin (he calls it “the moral molecule”) is responsible for trust, empathy and other feelings that help build a stable society.

What’s behind the human instinct to trust and to put each other’s well-being first? When you think about how much of the world works on a handshake or on holding a door open for somebody, why people cooperate is a huge question. Paul Zak researches oxytocin, a neuropeptide that affects our everyday social interactions and our ability to behave altruistically and cooperatively, applying his findings to the way we make decisions. A pioneer in a new field of study called neuroeconomics, Zak has demonstrated that oxytocin is responsible for a variety of virtuous behaviors in humans such as empathy, generosity and trust. Amazingly, he has also discovered that social networking triggers the same release of oxytocin in the brain — meaning that e-connections are interpreted by the brain like in-person connections.

A professor at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, Zak believes most humans are biologically wired to cooperate, but that business and economics ignore the biological foundations of human reciprocity, risking loss: when oxytocin levels are high in subjects, people’s generosity to strangers increases up to 80 percent; and countries with higher levels of trust – lower crime, better education – fare better economically.

He says: “Civilization is dependent on oxytocin. You can’t live around people you don’t know intimately unless you have something that says: Him I can trust, and this one I can’t trust.”


4 Responses to “Paul Zak on Trust, morality — and oxytocin?”

  • As with all things the picture gets more complicated when you look at the details. There are also studies suggesting that the hormone increases aggression in certain situations, in particular where defensive aggression is triggered (or when the individual is prone to aggression) and where between group competition is in play. A recently published study extended the in-group favouritism to dishonesty when it would garners group rewards.

    Biological systems are complex and molecules can serve multiple purposes in the body, I get nervous when I hear overly simplistic “x does y” statements, to be meaningful they should always be accompanied by “under conditions a,b,c”.

  • To do with as you wish:
    “Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism”
    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/01/06/1015316108

    “Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty”
    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/03/25/1400724111

    “Maternal aggression in rodents: brain oxytocin and vasopressin mediate pup defence”
    http://www.research.leiden.edu/news/oxytocin-the-hugging-hormone-causes-agression-towards-competing-groups.html

    “The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans”
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5984/1408.abstract

    • Awesome, mostly because all of this reinforces my priors: that things that reinforce altruism risk also reinforcing in-group versus out-group behaviours because the evolutionary biology conditions that generated altruism were all about in-group effects.

      In similar vein, there was a really fun Cowen piece a couple decades ago. A lot of free-market-oriented economists love to point out all the ways that individuals can voluntarily combine for the production of public goods – they come up with mechanisms to ensure that everybody cooperates, punish defection informally, and do wonderful things even without government forcing them to. And all that is true. Cowen pointed out that those same mechanisms allow cartels to form and the mafia to exist. Efficacy in the provision of public goods also makes the provision of public bads easier.