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When The 'Trust Hormone' Is Out Of Balance
04-30-2010, 01:36 PM,
When The 'Trust Hormone' Is Out Of Balance
When The 'Trust Hormone' Is Out Of Balance

by Alix Spiegel
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Listen to the Story <javascript: NPR.Player. openPlayer( 126141922,
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April 22, 2010

This is a story about a fickle little hormone that plays a large role in
our lives.

The name of the hormone is oxytocin, and until recently it was mostly
dismissed by scientists. They knew it played a role in inducing labor
and facilitating breast-feeding, but otherwise didn't give it much

But over the past 10 years, oxytocin has come up in the world, and
several researchers have begun making big claims about it. Now dubbed
"the trust hormone," oxytocin, researchers say, affects everything from
our day-to-day life to how we feel about our government.

The narrative of oxytocin --- the trust hormone --- is being rewritten.

*Trusting Everyone*

To understand the role that oxytocin plays in your own life, consider
the experience of a small 9-year-old girl named Isabelle. (NPR is not
using the full family name in this story for privacy reasons.)

Isabelle lives with her mother, Jessica, in a leafy East Coast suburb.
Often, Jessica says, she'll be out running an errand when she'll bump
into a well-meaning parent whose child goes to the same school as her
daughter. The parent, Jessica says, invariably has news to share about
an experience with Isabelle, and the conversations always go the same way:

"They'll say, 'Oh, I saw your daughter at school today. She's so cute,
she always tells me, 'I love you' when I see her in the hallway,' " says
Jessica. "And I'll just be grimacing thinking, 'There we go again.' "

Isabelle, you see, says "I love you" to everyone: to parents at her
school, to people from the neighborhood, to the salesman at Circuit City.

"Oh, all the time," Jessica says. "To Isabelle, there are no strangers
--- only friends she's not yet met."

The problem is that Isabelle has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic
disorder with a number of symptoms. The children are often physically
small and often have developmental delays. But also, kids and adults
with Williams love people and are pathologically trusting: They
literally have no social fear.

Researchers theorize that this is probably because of a problem with the
area in their brain that regulates the manufacture and release of
oxytocin. Somehow, the system in which oxytocin operates has been
disrupted in a way that makes it essentially biologically impossible for
kids like Isabelle to distrust.

And this presents a terrible dilemma for Jessica. Isabelle completely
trusts the world, but of course, the world is not worthy of complete trust.

And so several years ago, Jessica decided that, Williams be damned, she
herself would teach Isabelle to distrust. There were other symptoms of
the disorder that Jessica's perseverance had overcome: Though Williams
kids often have severe cognitive problems, Isabelle had learned to read.

But Jessica says no matter what she did, the trust her daughter offers
perfect strangers could not be extinguished.

"I just kept thinking if I can just find the right tools, if I can buy a
toy, if I can buy her a video, if we can model the behavior and reward
it with sticker charts," Jessica says. "But it didn't amount to so much.
That willingness to open herself up --- we can't get it to go away. "

Isabelle's uncritical trust and love of people, Jessica has concluded,
is an irreversible, biological fact.

*Oxytocin: The Trust Hormone*

From the perspective of Paul Zak, a researcher at Claremont Graduate
University, Jessica's problem is not surprising.

"I've observed children with Williams, and they are supertrusters, " says
Zak, who is both a neuroscientist and an economist. "They don't modulate
the balance between trust and distrust."

He says that in a normal brain, oxytocin is generated only after some
concrete event or action: A man you pass on the street tips his hat; a
woman smiles.

"When someone does something nice for you --- holds a door --- your
brain releases this chemical, and it down-regulates the appropriate fear
we have of interacting with strangers," Zak says.

Suddenly, you are filled with a sense that the person before you is not
a threat. And then just as quickly, according to Zak, it disappears ---
for very good reason.

"If you just had high levels of oxytocin, you would be giving away
resources to every stranger on the street," he says. "So this is a quick
on/off system."

Unless, of course, the system gets disregulated, which is what Zak and
other scientists say happens with Williams syndrome.

*Does Biology Affect Our Trust In Government?*

Zak first got interested in trust more than a decade ago after
co-authoring a study that looked at trust levels in different nations
and their economic stability. The study found that the higher the level
of trust, the better the economic status of the nation.

The work got Zak thinking more generally about different ways to
manipulate trust, and so starting in 2001, Zak began spraying oxytocin
up the noses of college students to see if the hormone would change the
way they interacted with strangers.

It did. Squirt oxytocin up the nose of a college kid, and he's 80
percent more likely to distribute his own money to perfect strangers.

This gave Zak an idea. Like some comic-book villain concocting a plan to
take over the world by dumping happy pills in the water supply, he
wondered if it might be possible to use this molecule --- oxytocin ---
to change the way people felt about the government.

"How much does this scale up?" Zak wondered. Could the effect go from
the individual all the way up to gigantic institutions like the
government? Zak decided to see. He undertook this experiment at a
particular historical moment: America was in the midst of the Great

"Trust in government is at an all-time low, and there certainly are
kinda macro reasons for that," says Zak. "But could there be biological
reasons? That was the question in this study: To what degree does the
biology of trust, which we associate with oxytocin, affect trust in
government and trust in government officials?"

Zak put 130 test subjects through his normal routines. He sprayed half
of them with oxytocin, half with a placebo, then ran them through a
battery of tests and measurements.

"The people on oxytocin did report that they trusted other people more,
and the people who trusted others more also trusted their government
more. So it's sort of a two-step process," he says.

Zak points out that it's well-documented that trust in government
declines during times of economic hardship. We also know, he says, that
during periods of economic hardship, people are often exposed to
prolonged stress and anxiety. And prolonged stress and anxiety, Zak
says, are like poison to oxytocin.

"So the underlying biological hypothesis is that stress --- particularly
stress that does not have a clear ending point --- inhibits oxytocin
release. So there /could/ be an actual biological reason why trust in
government is so low."

*Not Convinced Biology Is To Blame*

But Margaret Levi is a professor at the University of Washington and
also at the University of Syndey who has also spent much of her career
looking at trust, and she's skeptical.

"I think that biology plays a very trivial role influencing trust in
government and distrust," she says.

This isn't to say, Levi adds, that the work is without merit. For
instance, one of the things that Zak's experiment suggested was that it
was mainly through trusting other people that trust in government
increases: Those who trusted their fellow man more also trusted
government more.

And this, says Levi, is consistent with one of the big theories that's
dominated this area for the past 20 or so years. The theory was proposed
by a Harvard professor named Robert Putnam, who wrote a famous book
called /Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community/.

Putnam essentially argues, Levi says, that the way in which trust in
government is generated is basically bottom up. It's from the
relationships that we form with others through various kinds of
neighborhood and local organizations, like soccer clubs and choir
groups, that we come to have confidence and trust in each other. This
ultimately leads to a trust in the institutions of government and the
institutions of the economy.

Now, this is not Levi's view. From her perspective, it works top down:
Governments need to be trustworthy to get people to trust them.

"If we're talking about trust in government, the most important factor
is whether people believe the government is doing the job they want
government to do for them," Levi says.

But whether it is government being effective or biology or trust
generated through social groups, Zak says it's critically important to
better understand trust.

"Of all the things that economists have looked at to understand why
countries are rich or poor, trust is like that big gun that we've been
searching for," he says. "The effect of trust at affecting economic
growth is substantial compared to everything else that economists have
looked at."
05-05-2010, 04:56 AM,
RE: When The 'Trust Hormone' Is Out Of Balance
fascinating read. I'll have to come back to this one.
Thanks for bringing it to the table.
05-05-2010, 08:52 AM,
RE: When The 'Trust Hormone' Is Out Of Balance
Oxytocin has been related to all sorts of things relating to the human condition. We're led to believe we are a finely tuned chemical cocktail and that sets up 'treatment' for these imbalances more often than not, by chemicals. It's a pharmaceutical game that is resultant of manipulated food, mood, water and thought for control and profit which really are the same thing.

There is a huge chemical component to the makeup of humans that is being toyed with from all sorts of sources. Points to this not to be ignored is the lack or abundance of building blocks, the receptors of these chemicals to do their function and any inhibitors that are thrown in along in way of production or reception of the substance.

Rodrigues SM, Saslow LR, Garcia N, John OP, Keltner D (December 2009). "Oxytocin receptor genetic variation relates to empathy and stress reactivity in humans". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 106 (50): 21437–41

Marazziti D, Dell'Osso B, Baroni S, et al. (2006). "A relationship between oxytocin and anxiety of romantic attachment". Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health 2: 28.

Bartz JA, Hollander E (2008). "Oxytocin and experimental therapeutics in autism spectrum disorders". Progress in Brain Research 170: 451–62.

Guastella AJ, Einfeld EL, Gray, K, Rinehart N, Tonge B, Lambert TJ, Hickie IB (April 2010). "Intranasal oxytocin improves emotion recognition for youth with autism spectrum disorders". Biological Psychiatry 67 (7): 692-694.

Here's the report referenced in the article:
Kosfeld M, Heinrichs M, Zak PJ, Fischbacher U, Fehr E (June 2005). "Oxytocin increases trust in humans". Nature 435 (7042): 673–6

Kirsch P, Esslinger C, Chen Q, et al. (December 2005). "Oxytocin modulates neural circuitry for social cognition and fear in humans". The Journal of Neuroscience 25 (49): 11489–93.

Domes G, Heinrichs M, Michel A, Berger C, Herpertz SC (April 2010). "Oxytocin improves "mind-reading" in humans". Biological Psychiatry 61 (6): 731-3.

Rimmele U, Hediger K, Heinrichs M, Klaver P (2009). "Oxytocin makes a face in memory familiar". Journal of Neuroscience 29 (1): 38-42.

Guastella AJ, Mitchell PB, Matthews F (August 2008). "Oxytocin enhances the encoding of positive social memories in humans". Biological Psychiatry 64 (3): 256-8.

Perach-Bloom N, Levkovitz Y (November 2009). "Intranasal administration of oxytocin increases envy and schadenfreude (gloating)". Biological Psychiatry 66 (9): 864–70.

Landgraf R, Neumann ID (2004). "Vasopressin and oxytocin release within the brain: a dynamic concept of multiple and variable modes of neuropeptide communication". Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 25 (3-4): 150–76.

Wathes DC, Swann RW (May 1982). "Is oxytocin an ovarian hormone?". Nature 297 (5863): 225–7.

.. seems like a good substance to manipulate if I were trying to control people.
There are no others, there is only us.
05-05-2010, 06:59 PM,
RE: When The 'Trust Hormone' Is Out Of Balance
(05-05-2010, 08:52 AM)FastTadpole Wrote: .. seems like a good substance to manipulate if I were trying to control people.

i think you are right.

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