Trust, morality, and Oxytocin – The Moral MoleculeIn Biotechnology
In this article, Paul J. Zak describes why people tend to be good? How is morality affected by a chemical Oxytocin. Paul J. Zak is the founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics at Claremont Graduate University. Dr. Zak is a recognized expert in oxytocin. His lab discovered in 2004 that an ancient chemical in our brains, oxytocin, allows us to determine whom to trust. This knowledge is being used to understand the basis for modern civilizations and modern economies, improve negotiations, and treat patients with neurological and psychiatric disorders.
His book The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity will be available May 1, 2012 from Dutton.
Oxytocin (Oxt) is a mammalian hormone that acts primarily as a neuromodulator in the brain. Oxytocin is best known for its roles in female reproduction. It is released in large amounts after distension of the cervix and uterus during labor, facilitating birth, and after stimulation of the nipples, facilitating breastfeeding. Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin’s role in various behaviors, including orgasm, social recognition, pair bonding, anxiety, and maternal behaviors. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone”. Oxytocin was the very first polypeptide hormone to be sequenced and synthesized.
Join me for a lunchtime walk I took down K Street in Washington DC about ten years ago. Half a block ahead of me was a well-dressed woman in standard DC garb: jacket, skirt, and heels. Suddenly she tumbled to the ground and hit it with an audible thud. She stayed down and was writhing in obvious pain. Within seconds a crowd gathered. Someone’s sport coat was put under her head and her swelling ankle examined. A call to 9-1-1 was made and a water bottle offered. What are we to make of this? Perhaps a rare instance of DC denizens helping a stranger? Or is helping someone in need a more typical behavior? If we look around us, we see strangers helping others all the time, from opening doors for others to sending checks to aid disaster victims.
For some reason, human beings have a strong inclination to help others, even strangers. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has called this our moral instinct: we often and with little thought actively help others or avoid hurting them. The moral instinct allows us to live around, and obtain the value of cooperating with, complete strangers. Indeed, this is the hallmark of civilization, a group of mostly unrelated people who live and work together.
The reasons that we humans have a moral instinct are just starting to be understood with recent advances in the “neuro hyphen” fields, including neuroethics, neurophilosophy, and neuroeconomics. The discovery by my lab in 2004 of a measurable and manipulable brain chemical called oxytocin that drives moral behaviors has moved our understanding of the moral instinct forward several steps (see “The neurobiology of trust,” Scientific American, June, 2008). These discoveries not only revealed how the brain balances virtue and vice, but have allowed us to explain a variety of quirky or apparently pathological behaviors. The quirky stuff includes why we pamper our pets so much, why marriages between robots and humans are coming, why a man shot his lawnmower, and why humans have evolved a custom of touching their palms to others’ palms. These all make sense when one understands oxytocin, the moral molecule. More weighty (but still fun) topics include how we pick our elected leaders, why “virtue” is a new business buzz word, and how markets promote and inhibit moral behaviors (Enron explained). All in all, I promise you an entertaining new take on human behavior with The Moral Molecule.