Human beings are the only creatures that we know of, with the ability to live by a certain level of morality. We possess moral sentiments, so much so that our entire lives are utterly obsessed and governed by them. Until now, morality has been a mystery shrouded in the mystic, the spiritual, the religious. Not anymore.
Paul Zak, a PhD graduate and Neuroeconomics expert from California, wanted to know if there was a “moral” molecule, a brain chemistry that determines your level of morality or immorality: good vs. evil.
After a decade of experimentation, he can now conclude that yes, there is. The key to morality lies in oxytocin.
“So I had this idea that oxytocin might be the moral molecule. I did what most of us do — I tried it on some colleagues. One of them told me, “Paul, that is the world’s stupidist idea. It is,” he said, “only a female molecule. It can’t be that important.” But I countered, “Well men’s brains make this too. There must be a reason why.” But he was right, it was a stupid idea. But it was testably stupid. In other words, I thought I could design an experiment to see if oxytocin made people moral.
Turns out it wasn’t so easy… I started smaller. I studied one single virtue: trustworthiness. Why? I had shown in the early 2000s that countries with a higher proportion of trustworthy people are more prosperous. So in these countries, more economic transactions occur and more wealth is created, alleviating poverty. So poor countries are by and large low trust countries. So if I understood the chemistry of trustworthiness, I might help alleviate poverty.”
In order to test trustworthiness in a measurable way, Paul Zak recruited people for the experiment by enticing them with $10 if they agreed to show up. Each candidate was paired up by computer. Once in a pair, one person was sent the message: Do you want to give up some of your $10 you earned for being here, and give it to someone else in the lab?” Then it was explained that if you do, the amount you give up gets tripled in the other person’s account. However, you are never told whom exactly your money has gone to.
Meanwhile, the random person who receives the money (tripled), is told exactly which person sacrificed some of their money. “Do you want to keep it all, secretly? Or do you want to give some of it back?” is the question they are posed with.
“We found 90 percent of the first decision-makers sent money, and of those who received money, 95 percent returned some of it. But why? Well by measuring oxytocin we found that the more money the second person received, the more their brain produced oxytocin, and the more oxytocin on board, the more money they returned. So we have a biology of trustworthiness. We measured nine other molecules that interact with oxytocin, but they didn’t have any effect.”
Following the conclusions of experiment one, Zak put 200 men on oxytocin nasal spray vs placebo nasal spray, then ran the same trust test.
“It was clearly found that those on oxytocin not only showed more trust, more than double the number of people sent all of their money to a stranger — all without altering mood or cognition.”
Using the oxytocin inhaler, Zak’s team showed that oxytocin infusion increases generosity in unilateral monetary transfers by 80 percent. We showed it increases donations to charity by 50 percent.
“Knowing [about the oxytocin] molecule is valuable, because it tells us how to turn up this behavior, and what turns it off. In particular, it tells us why we see immorality.”
“We found, testing thousands of individuals, that five percent of the population don’t release oxytocin on stimulus. So if you trust them, their brains don’t release oxytocin. If there’s money on the table, they keep it all. So there’s a technical word for these people in my lab. We call them bastards.”
In all seriousness, though, here is the kicker. People who do not release oxytocin on stimulus, we can now say with confidence, are definitely not people you want to trust, do business with, form trustworthy relationships with. They in fact share many attributes with psychopaths.
Ways oxytocin can be inhibited in humans:
Improper nurturing, eg: sexually abused women, and about half those don’t release oxytocin on stimulus.
High stress. When we’re really stressed out, we’re not acting our best, not empathetic, etc.
Through the action of testosterone. Interestingly, high testosterone males are also more likely to use their own money to punish others. Oxytocin inherently connects us to others, makes us feel what they feel. Testosterone makes us want to punish people who behave immorally.
We don’t need God or government telling us what to do. It’s all inside of us.
Watch The Video: Paul Zak: Trust, Morality – and Oxytocin | TED.com