Trust, Morality and Oxytocin

Oxytocin influences our sense of trust and trustworthy behavior

Dr. Paul J. Zak is a professor of economics, neurology, psychology & management, and the founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies. He regularly is a public speaker at different events and has published several books on morality and trust. His research looks closely at the critical role of the hormone oxytocin, which he defined as the brain’s “moral molecule”, critical in building relationships based on trust. His most recent book, “Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-performance Companies”, was published in 2017.

About The Research

Oxytocin and Empathy

In his research, Dr. Zak concentrated on one essential part of his findings: The so-called “cuddle” hormone, oxytocin, which appears in humans as well as animals during reproduction and breastfeeding. “Functional MRI has shown that infusing people with oxytocin reduces fear-associated brain activity.” This reduction of fear then translates into increased levels of trust, which are the base to foster strong relationships between individuals.

According to their findings, the more oxytocin is released in one individual, the more feelings of empathy are expressed towards another party, making this individual more prone to help the other. Helping them in this case then triggers our reward system, which leads to dopamine release in certain brain areas that creates feelings of satisfaction and makes us adopt these behaviors because we remember the positive outcome.

The Experiment

Dr. Zak has shown that oxytocin influences our levels of trust in others, even strangers, and thus increases overall trust and personal trustworthy behavior. This insight was obtained through a simple experiment, where test subjects were given an amount of $10 to participate in the research. This amount was then available for distribution through a computer interface to a complete stranger, who the participants were not able to see. The clue of this experiment was, that the money that was given to others tripled its amount so that the recipients had their initial $10 plus thrice what someone else sent them. These recipients then had the chance to send this friendly donor a certain amount of money back, if they liked to do so. The outcome was, that individuals who had been given oxytocin through a nasal spray were giving 17% more than the ones without the artificially increased hormone levels. On top of that, twice as many participants gave all their cash to the unknown individual. Additionally, those individuals on the receiving side with the highest level of oxytocin returned the most money to the unknown donors.

Trust in a Business Environment

Trust also applies to the business environment, because trust facilitates transactions, motivates intrinsically, and therefore increases performance and bottom-line. This is the reason why companies today focus more and more on building trust, by not only externally portraying trustworthiness to consumers to increase sales, but also by creating a culture of trust internally to engage employees sustainable and boost overall performance.