Oxytocin: the Moral Molecule

Could the hormone associated with breast feeding and mother-baby bonding also be responsible for our feelings of morality and empathy?
03 August 2015

Interview with 

Dr Paul Zak, Claremont Graduate University


Attracting potential partners is not all there is to reproduction - there are hormones Hugsinvolved with actually having babies, and also building relationships. One such hormone, which has attracted a lot of recent attention, is oxytocin. Oxytocin is known to be important in women for breast feeding, although more recently it has been suspected oxytocin has an important role to play in both sexes in forming trust and relationships. Paul Zak, of Claremont Graduate University, has made it his mission to investigate this so called moral molecule, as he explained to Chris Smith...

Paul - What's most exciting about oxytocin is in the last 15 years, we discovered that it's released on stimulus in the brain itself. So, the brain is the target for oxytocin. It's effects are increasing awareness of social cues and it does that essentially by making us more empathic. So, when I release oxytocin, I'm more sensitive to your feelings or the feelings of people around me. But oxytocin, we're learning in the last 15 years is a key part of the adaptive human social system.

Chris - When these sorts of social interactions are happening, I enjoy a beer with somebody, I go to a family event or something, we all sit down, we cooperate, we get on. That is associated with an oxytocin release from all parties and that reinforces that social bonding. Is that what you're saying?

Paul - Yeah, even more strongly. How do we live in these big cities, in this sea of strangers? How can we walk on the sidewalk in London or New York and not be completely freaked out like chimpanzees would if they had stranger chimpanzees around them. So, oxytocin seems to be this very rapid brain signal that signals safety, or trustworthiness or familiarity. There's good evidence for that in rodents and again, 15 years of evidence in humans that is functioning as this, "It's okay to be around the other humans." So, the cost of being around other humans is they might attack you, they might be aggressive, they might be scary. But the benefit is, all of the ability to cooperate with others to find, build alliances to protect each other, to find romantic partners, all those things appear to be enabled by the brain's release of oxytocin.

Chris - So, under what settings is oxytocin released in those adults?

Paul - We found hallf a dozen different ways the brain can be stimulated to make oxytocin. Everything from touch, to watching a sad movie, to having someone trust you tangibly. So, we showed that by doing very rapid serial blood draws and we can see the spike in oxytocin and that spike in oxytocin will predict how much you'll reciprocate in a like way. So, I think of oxytocin as the biological substrate for the golden rule. If you treat me nice Chris, I will release oxytocin and I'm motivated to treat you nice in return.

Chris - So, why don't we have a system that just sprays this around football matches to keep everyone on the same side so to speak, public transport so no one gets angry and beats anyone up? Why don't we use it like that?

Paul - So first of all, it would be illegal and immoral to drug people without their permission. The brain's oxytocin system is very focused. It's a fairly finely tuned system. In most people we tested - again 95 per cent and thousands of people around the world. So, if we intervened the system, oxytocin replacement is kind of a sledgehammer. And so, you lose that delicate conditionality. And so, if I did that then I might make people more vulnerable to conmen or to being taken advantage of in some way. I do think Chris, one of the most exciting things about the oxytocin research is that like all other brain systems, this system is plastic. It's learnable, it's trainable, and the more we release oxytocin, there's quite good evidence in animals that the more you become biased to release it. So, if we want to be more empathic, more compassionate as individuals, and potentially as a society then we can work on finding opportunities to induce oxytocin release in others. So, it's difficult to make your own brain release oxytocin because it requires this positive social stimulus, but we can give that gift to others by being kind to them, by recognising them, by giving them a hug. And that keeps oxytocin active in the brain for about 20 minutes. So, you hug someone you like. For 20 minutes, they feel more connected to people around them. They're calmer, they're just a little nicer. Isn't that a beautiful thing?

Chris - And the flip side, or is there evidence that a conman or conwoman are just very good at making people release oxytocin and therefore, imbuing trust?

Paul - There is evidence for that and we've done studies on criminal psychopaths in prison. On average, they don't release oxytocin and yet, they know the right things to say if they have high enough IQ. So they say, "I was very moved by this..." sometimes we use movies to induce oxytocin release and say, "I care so much about children in this movie. It really touched me." But their brains are saying something different. They're telling us that they really don't have the machinery to feel empathy for others. When you don't feel empathy for others, it's easy to mistreat them. And that's why I call oxytocin the moral molecule, it motivates us to behave in positive social behaviours to those around us. It's one of the many brain signals that motivates positive social behaviours.


Add a comment