7/24/12 - oxytocin and morality

In today's excerpt - the hormone oxytocin may be the key to understanding moral behavior:

"Oxytocin is known primarily as a female reproductive hormone. ... Oxytocin controls contractions during labor, which is where many women encounter it as Pitocin, the commercially available synthetic version doctors inject in expectant mothers to induce delivery. Oxytocin is also responsible for the calm, focused attention mothers relish on their babies while breast-feeding. ... Oxytocin is well represented—we hope—on wedding nights, because it helps create the warm glow both women and men feel during sex, or a massage, or even a hug. ...

"My research had demonstrated that [oxytocin] both in the brain and in the blood is, in fact, the key to moral behavior. Not just in our intimate relationships, but also in our business dealings, in politics, in society at large.

"Which is a point, I realize, that might take some getting used to.

"Am I actually saying that a single molecule—and, by the way, a chemical substance that scientists like me can manipulate in the lab—accounts for why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted bastards, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life, why some husbands are more faithful than others, and, by the way, why women tend to be more generous—and nicer—than men?

"In a word, yes.

"Beginning in 2001, my colleagues and I 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 the people being tested to share real money in real time. To measure the increase in oxytocin, we took their blood and analyzed it.

"Money, as everybody knows, comes in conveniently measur­able units—nickels and dimes, tens and twenties—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. Later, to be absolutely certain that what we were seeing was not just an association but true cause and effect, we infused syn­thetic oxytocin into our study subjects' nasal passages—the next best thing to shooting it directly into their brains. As for cause and effect, we found that we could turn the behavioral response on and off like a garden hose.

"But what our work demonstrated first and foremost is that you don't need to shoot a chemical up someone's nose, or have sex with them, or even give them a hug in order to create the surge in oxy­tocin that leads to more generous behavior. Fortunately, all you have to do to trigger this Moral Molecule is give someone a sign of trust. When one person extends himself to another in a trusting way, the person being trusted experiences a surge in oxytocin that makes her less likely to hold back, and less likely to cheat. Which is another way of saying that the feeling of being trusted makes a person more ... trustworthy. Which, over time, makes other peo­ple more inclined to trust, which in turn ...

"If you detect the makings of an endless loop here that can feed back onto itself, creating what might be called a virtuous cycle—and ultimately a virtuous society—you're getting the idea. And that's what's so incredibly exciting about this research.

"Obviously there's more to it, because no one chemical in the body functions all alone, and other factors from a person's life experience play a role as well. But as we'll see in the chapters ahead, oxytocin orchestrates the kind of generous and caring behavior that every culture, everywhere in the world, endorses as the right way to live, the cooperative, benign, pro-social way of living that every culture everywhere on the planet describes as 'moral.'

"Which is not to say that oxytocin always makes us good, or always generous and trusting. In a rough-and-tumble world, unwavering openness and loving kindness would be like going around with a KICK ME sign on your back. Instead, the Moral Mol­ecule works like a gyroscope, helping us maintain our balance between behavior based on trust, and behavior based on wariness and distrust. In this way oxytocin helps us navigate between the social benefits of openness—which are considerable—and the rea­sonable caution we need to avoid being taken for a ride."


Paul J. Zak


The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity


Dutton, a member of Penguin Group


Copyright 2012 by Paul J. Zak


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