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The Moral Molecule
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The Moral Molecule

You know what’s missing on Capitol Hill? How about a nine-amino-acid molecule to get politicians working together again? That would be a miracle!

It’s not a miracle – but this molecule, which is a tiny hormone called oxytocin – is pretty powerful! A recent study suggests oxytocin, is behind feelings of trust and generosity. It’s the same hormone most of us associate with mothers – for childbirth and breastfeeding. Oxytocin also has a role in pair bonding, sexual behavior, and in forming normal social attachments.

The newest study presents oxytocin as an even more intriguing hormone by calling it the “moral molecule”. Authors of the study say oxytocin explains why some people give freely while others are stingy. In experiments, researchers compared the behavior of people given oxytocin intranasally against a placebo group while they played a money game.

Each person is given $12. An “investor” has the option to give any amount up to all their money to a “trustee”. What’s given is immediately tripled. So, a trustee could end up with 48 dollars – twelve of his plus up to 36 dollars tripled from the investor. The trustee could then choose to transfer back to the investor any or all of that money. Turns out, 45 percent of the oxytocin group displayed maximal trust by giving the trustee all $12 while only 21% of the control subjects did so. People in the oxytocin group consistently gave more than the control group.

What’s striking is that when the studies were repeated without oxytocin, the trustees who were generously given money gave generously back. Blood samples showed their oxytocin levels shot up simply because they felt trusted. In other words, oxytocin levels can surge from something as simple as a massage, prayer, singing and other activities that foster social connection.

 


For more information…

For a website by the lead author of the studies that suggest that oxytocin is involved in trust, morality and generosity, including his book on the subject, go here

The TED conference and talks are intended to spread new ideas about technology, entertainment and design (TED). To hear the study author, Dr. Paul Zak, speak, visit this web page.

Dr. Paul Zak’s published journal article about oxytocin entitled “Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans” can be read here.

Scientific American published an article several years ago about the role of oxytocin in trusting behavior.

For more information about the role of oxytocin in human physiology and behavior, read this.

New Scientist is a very well written magazine that covers a broad range of science and they published a good article about oxytocin here.

This page has a summary of the oxytocin molecule and its many roles in human physiology and behavior.

 

 
 

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