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June 7, 2008

Who(m) do you trust?


The figure above is from Paul J. Zak's fascinating article entitled "The Neurobiology of Trust," appearing in the latest issue (June, 2008) of Scientific American.

Zak is one of the founders of neuroeconomics, which "... combines neuroscience, economics, and psychology to study how people make decisions."

    From the Scientific American article:

    Let me be clear that our experiment had nothing to do with manipulating people's minds to empty their wallets, because it certainly did not turn subjects into will-less automatons. Nor did it offer the possibility that salespeople or politicians could spritz oxytocin into the air or spike people's food or drink to force others to trust them. Oxytocin breaks down in the gut, so oral adminitration has no effect on the brain. Further, intravenous or nasal delivery is easy to notice, and sniffing it from the air would not raise brain levels appreciably. (Do not be fooled by claims of companies selling "trust in a bottle.")

    Although most people can be deemed trustworthy, 2 percent of subjects... were particularly untrustworthy... and, significantly, they exhibited unusually high levels of oxytocin. This result suggests that these individuals have oxytocin receptors in the wrong brain regions (for instance, those that do not modulate dopamine release) or have dysregulated receptors. In the latter case, neurons would essentially be deaf to oxytocin release, regardless of how much was made. Tellingly, the highly untrustworthy possess personality traits that resemble those of sociopaths, who are indifferent to or even stimulated by another's suffering.

    Today, my laboratory focuses on examining whether deficits in oxytocin activity in the brain contribute to disorders marked by by disturbed social interactions. People suffering from autism, for instance, have low oxytocin levels. Studies by others have found that replacing the peptide in these subjects did not produce any increase in their social engagement. As was likely true of untrustworthy people..., this result suggests that those with autism may have an oxytocin receptor dysfunction.


Zak was one of the authors of a 2005 publication which appeared in Nature magazine entitled "Oxytocin is Associated with Human Trustworthiness," which drew intense media interest after its appearance, including much speculation about whether easy brainwashing was within reach.


His November, 2007 PLOS One paper entitled "Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans" is open for one and all to read and download here.

June 7, 2008 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Oh God... I knew Romanians were paranoid, but not that much! Then again... most people answer the question by thinking of people they come in contact with, and, I have to admit, I wouldn't say "most Romanians" can be trusted. The trustworthy are the exception, not the rule.

Posted by: Jen | Jun 9, 2008 10:32:58 AM

Fascinating to see Iran up there with the Scandinavian countries and before Japan. The truth is that I accepted sweets on the street from a complete stranger and never worried that someone had spiked it with something and walked around with several thousand US dollars on me without concerning myself that every bump into my person meant that it had been pilfered. You gotta be careful with the car though. Those get stolen. But ahead of Japan, wow.

Posted by: Milena | Jun 8, 2008 6:42:44 AM

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