- Oxytocin is a hormone that induces trust.
- It is one of the maguffins in my short story, Spookmoth.
- Oxytocin is involved in the bonding between intimate partners and larger collaborative groups.
- Increased group loyalty can be at the expense of competing groups.
If you give him all your money and he gives it all back, you will have 30 francs instead of 10 and he will be no worse off. Even if he keeps half of it, you’ll still have turned your ten into fifteen. On the other hand, he could hang on to whatever you give him, in which case you’re better off giving him nothing at all.
If only you could meet him, you could agree to treble the 10 francs into 30 and split them between you. Unfortunately, you got the 10 francs from a psychologist called Markus Heinrichs who won’t let you do that. He doesn’t care how much or how little you make. He just wants to know what you’re going to do.
So how much would you give away?
How to breathe in trust
If you’d been part of Heinrichs’s experiment, the answer would depend on what he’d just sprayed up your nose. You don’t know whether you got a placebo or the hormone oxytocin. If it was oxytocin, you’re probably going to give away more money and expect more back.The study, carried out at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, showed that oxytocin induces trust. For a species that depends so strongly as co-operation as Homo sapiens, trust is essential for anything that needs more than two of us to achieve. It was true when the first human beings worked together to corral antelopes on the East African savannah and it’s true as you read these words and – hopefully – trust me to tell the truth.
Trust is central to the most fundamental activity that two people agree to collaborate on: having and raising a child. Oxytocin is involved from the very beginning, as sex is one of a number of things that stimulate the pituitary gland to release it. It was first discovered at a later stage, as it is also released to trigger labour and lactation. A baby is born to a mother whose system is flooded with a hormone making her feel trusting and bonded to it.
Dr Love prescribes the moral molecule
One of Heinrichs’s coinvestigators was Paul Zak, now director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics at Claremont Graduate University in California, who extrapolates from trust to morality and describes oxytocin as the ‘moral molecule’. He described his enthusiasm for the molecule in a 2011 TED talk:
If a hormone could choose an evangelist to plead its cause, it could do worse than Zak. He regards its promotion of trust as so important that he calls it the ‘moral molecule’.
The timing of this post is not unrelated to my recently relaunching my short story Spookmoth, originally published in Wicked Words 1, as a kindle ebook on Amazon (US UK DE FR ES IT NL JP BR CA MX AU IN). It’s available for free download for the next few days and if you’re going to read it, please do before I start giving away spoilers in a few paragraphs’ time.
Shameless plugging aside, oxytocin’s promoters like Zak have generated a lot of popular discussion in the last few years. It is often described as the ‘cuddle chemical’ as it’s released by massage, affectionate touching, sex and of course cuddling. Zak goes so far as to prescribe ‘eight hugs a day’ as the key to happiness, which earning himself the nickname of ‘Dr Love’.
Orgies of hormonal trust
The release of oxytocin through affection makes sense for a species that is so dependent on its social links. We need at least some trust in someone before we let them touch us, and more and longer contact usually means more trust. Before I shake someone’s hand, I need to trust them not to stab me. I have to be a lot more comfortable than that to hug someone. Yet as I’m doing either of those things, I’m releasing oxytocin that will make me trust that person more and although I don’t know it, I’m trusting their endocrine system to do the same for them.
Zak relates oxytocin to societal bonding rituals. He once persuaded a wedding party to let him monitor their oxytocin levels through the ceremony:
Perhaps predictably, the bride experienced a stronger surge in oxytocin than anyone else present, with her mother a close second. However, most of the guests also experienced a surge which probably stirred them to trust each other more by the end of the ceremony than at the beginning. That observation gives us an insight into why so many disparate societies put so much stock in ceremonies, whether they mark the formal bonding of a couple, the birth of a child or the death of a member of the community.Most countries have ceremonies that celebrate their nationhood such as saluting flags, singing national anthems or celebrating events in the nation’s history. Perhaps the reason for these ceremonies lies in the oxytocin release stimulated by such ceremonies. The trust is related toward the nation state that the people are part of. Such ceremonies usually involve a visual symbol such as a flag, as the country must be present as more than an abstract concept. We’re visual creatures, so there needs to be a visual symbol for those feelings of trust to be directed at.
Trusting the untrustworthy
If oxytocin is associated with nice things like trust and societal cohesion, not mention cuddles and sex, why am I talking about weaponising it? And how did it find its way into one of my stories? If you’ve read any of my fiction, you’ll know that if one of my characters suggests a cuddle, it’s time to run for the hills.
Oxytocin may be cruising around your bloodstream telling you to trust people, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea. The downsides of oxytocin were laid out by science writer Ed Yong in articles for New Scientist and Slate, the latter being less detailed but it’s not behind a paywall.
Heinrichs’s experiment involved a receiver as well as a giver. The more the giver trusted the receiver, the more money they would give to them. However, the experiment did not require the receiver to trust anyone. He gained nothing by giving money away to a stranger and incurred no penalty if he kept it all. The receiver’s decision was based entirely on his feelings of decency. In fact, most of the receivers returned slightly more than the amount given away, but kept more than half of the difference after it was trebled. While oxytocin-induced trust inspired givers to
give more away, it had no effect on how much the receivers returned. Oxytocin increased levels of trust, but had no effect on whether the person being trusted was trustworthy.
Trust me, I’m a scammerThe lack of an effect on trustworthiness does not matter between people entering a reciprocal relationship, in which both are required to trust the other. Oxytocin motivate them both to commit to that relationship because they trust each other. Where it becomes problematic is when the nature of the relationship requires more trust from one party than another.
In the relationship that has the greatest imbalance between trust and trustworthiness, Oxytocin is the confidence trickster’s best friend. Most cons depend on a mark trusting the con, so a skilled confidence trickster makes an effort to engender that trust. Somewhere in the world, a con artist who has read an article on oxytocin is working out how to get it up an unsuspecting mark’s nose.
It may not be the apparently bewildered motorist Zak met as a teenager running a late night garage, who suddenly found an expensive necklace. We’ve all been in a situation where we need a service and the plumber or builder or whoever it is wants payment upfront. Once we’ve paid, we then have to trust him to do what he promised to do. We’ve all been disappointed. Has oxytocin nudged us toward the misjudgement we made in trusting that person?
There are a significant number of people who either do not release oxytocin when stimulated, or on whom oxytocin has no effect. For example, oxytocin makes people with borderline personality disorder less rather than more trusting, and there are probably other conditions in which oxytocin has the reverse of the effect it has on the majority of people.It’s easy to see how that would make things go wrong: most people develop relationships, whether platonic, romantic or business, through situations that build their own trust and which they expect to build the trust of others. They seek the situations that stimulate their pituitary glands to release oxytocin. What they don’t realise is that for some people, that oxytocin release will have the opposite effect to what they expect. As they are feeling more comfortable with someone, that person is becoming more anxious and wanting to get away from the situation.
Trust us, take from them
Even when a group successfully bonds, it may be at the expense of other groups. A research group at the University of Amsterdam explored that with a variation of Heinrichs’s trust game. Volunteers were arranged into different groups and played a version of the prisoner’s dilemma with a member of another group. Each player staked a euro and chose whether to co-operate or defect. If both players co-operated, they each retained their euro. If they both defected, they were both fined an equal amount. If one player co-operated and the other defected, the defector would walk away with some of the co-operator’s money. After each volunteer had played three games, the total amassed by each group was divided equally between the members of the group.
The experiment put each player in a situation where they were co-operating with their own group and competing with the others. Far from increasing co-operation within the games, oxytocin sprays induced more players to defect. Their concern for the collective wellbeing of their own group was at the expense of members of other groups.
Consider the way that footballers (or soccer players if you will) pile on to each other after one of them has scored a goal. They are celebrating their collective success with the sort of touching that stimulates oxytocin production, and they are celebrating that success at the expense of the other team. They may keep it tasteful when the cameras are on them, but it’s safe to say that they’ll be bragging about how they ‘kicked some arse’ later on.
To take that to another level, it’s quite likely that oxytocin also plays a role in group violence. As one example among many, 1964 saw two youth groups called the Mods and the Rockers clash along the coastal resorts of Southern England. Many of the pictures of the groups show group members pressed close together, sharing oxytocin, before breaking up deckchairs to use as weapons against the other group.
To engage in group violence, a group must trust each other. Oxytocin engenders that trust.
A drink from a strangerWhile enhancing the bonding between soldiers is one possible way of weaponising oxytocin, it was the discrepancy between trust and trustworthiness that caught my attention while I was thinking about Spookmoth. Oxytocin sprays are already available commercially, and are being tested as treatments for depression and to improve the social skills of people on the autistic spectrum. If it’s being tested for anything more egregious, it’s happening in secret.
Suppose a businessman sprayed the air in his office with oxytocin, then invited a potential client into it before closing a deal. The client would be that bit more likely to agree to the tradesman’s terms. The tradesman would also find himself trusting the customer more, but that wouldn’t matter if the negotiation was structured in a way the put the burden of trust on the client. The tradesman would also have the advantage of being prepared for that effect and could decide in advance what sort of arrangement he was willing to enter into.
An even more insidious use that has been suggested is on a reluctant sexual partner, who may be induced to trust his or her seducer more quickly.
In Spookmoth (here we go with those SPOILERS), the oxytocin appears as a combination of both. An industrial spy, Carl, is unknowingly co-opted by his competition in the person of Gayle. Gayle knows Carl is at the critical part of his mission and likely to be suspicious, so she combines an apparently chance encounter with a dose of oxytocin. If Carl trusts her, he won’t wonder whether it was such a chance encounter after all.
The effect of oxytocin only goes so far. Carl would not have gone over to Gayle’s side if she’d just asked him, however much oxytocin she’d plied him with. She has to use an oblique approach, and use the oxytocin to suppress his suspicions. He’s more pliable than he might otherwise be, but not so much that he notices. Gayle has to keep him misdirected and distracted, using her social skills and the two assets she knows will keep him distracted from the moment they meet.
Or maybe I just wanted to write about breasts.
A weapon in concept onlyBefore we all start worrying about oxytocin being sprayed into the air or dropped into our drinks, it’s worth remembering that someone had put in a lot of time and effort to get oxytocin out of a nasal spray and into a form that Gayle could use. Carl may not have been James Bond, but he’d get suspicious if Gayle asked him to sit still while she did that. She could have done what the hypothetical businessman above did and bring him into a room she’d already sprayed with it, but it would be a pretty thin vapour and he might not inhale enough to have an effect.
The difference between a spy and a science fiction writer is that the latter doesn’t have to solve every technical problem to make a device work, so I let her put it in his beer. In fact, the digestive tract is more likely to digest a hormone than transfer it to the bloodstream. Gayle’s employers would also have had to develop some sort of slow release mechanism because oxytocin does not stay in the bloodstream for long. Once someone has taken a nasal spray, their oxytocin levels return to normal in around 90 minutes. Gayle needed Carl’s enhanced trust to last for several hours after she dosed him, otherwise he would start asking himself why she was taking an interest in him.
Once Gayle or her team had solved the technical problems, she would have the holy grail of the con artist in her grasp: a shortcut to the trust of her mark.
The cuddle chemical or the conman’s friend?
Gayle’s machinations aside, we’re left with the question of what knowing about the relationship between oxytocin and intragroup trust actually tells us. Most of us are not trying to seduce inept industrial spies. Paul Zak thinks we can use oxytocin to make ourselves happier, though his eight hugs a day are only available to people who have willing hug-partners.Perhaps the most important message is to keep in mind that the same system that binds us to the people we care about can also make us callous toward people outside our own group. We can’t avoid it. We couldn’t stop producing oxytocin even if we wanted to. But oxytocin is only one factor among the firing neurones and pumping hormones that make up the hardware of the human psyche. The entire system that is the human mind can choose to ignore the influence of one part of it, as long as it recognises that influence. Let’s keep oxytocin in its place: helping us to enjoy those hugs.
Spookmoth was first published in Wicked Words 1, and is now available as a free standing ebook from Amazon:
Cover design by Manda Benson