Chemical trust: Oxytocin oxymoron?

Chemical trust: Oxytocin oxymoron?
The American Journal of Bioethics, 5(3): 1–2, 2005

Writing in the journal Nature, Michael Kosfeld and colleagues reported that intranasal administration of oxytocin, a human neuropeptide involved in maternal bonding, “causes a substantial increase in trusting behavior, thereby greatly increasing the benefits from social interactions.”

The double-blind study involved a trust game with real monetary stakes, in which the subjects played the role of either an investor or a trustee. Investors could choose whether and how much money to invest with an anonymous trustee, and the trustees could choose whether to honor or violate the investors’ trust. The investors who had inhaled the oxytocin invested 17% more money than those who received the placebo.

… Trust is a complex human phenomenon, involving social behavior, emotions, and values—the potential medicalization of trust is cause for concern. While the researchers focused primarily on what they viewed as the positive aspects of trust as the glue that holds families, economies and societies together, a high level of trust is not necessarily an unmitigated good. The researchers reported that the drug inhibited defensive behaviors and betrayal aversion; this necessarily leaves affected individuals more vulnerable. Essentially, a person or institution with the capability of artificially manipulating trust levels would be in a position to increase people’s level of gullibility. Artificially manipulated trust levels could compromise people’s ability to make sound judgments and put them in risky situations.

papers cited:

Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435: 673–676 (2 June 2005).

Damasio, A. Human behavior: Brain trust. Nature, 435: 571–6572 (2 June 2005).