The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works

It’s very likely that you’ve heard the expression, “sharing is caring.” While most people tend to fall in line with this notion and engage in sharing because of how good it makes them feel, there are those who harbor alternative motives for displaying this behavior. In fact, this other group of people may engage in sharing only to create the illusion of caring, but why would they do that? And who are these devious individuals anyway?

Paul J. Zak has spent the last decade attempting to understand and explain this phenomenon. His book “The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works investigates the nature of empathy, bonding, and sharing; in it he delves deep into the nature of human morality. He proposes that the scope of human morality is really influenced by the presence and potency of one chemical substance: oxytocin.

In some ways, you can think of oxytocin as a love potion. It’s a chemical elixir capable of producing intimate bonds, not only the kind found between immediate friends and/or family, but also the kind of bonds that exist in successful business partnerships, political affiliations, and communities. Bluntly (and broadly) speaking, oxytocin promotes trust and empathy.

The mysterious molecule actually acts as neuromodulator (regulator) in the brain. For the longest time, it was believed that its main role had to do with sexual reproduction, specifically during and after childbirth because it induces contractions and instigates maternal bonding. Recently, however, thanks in part to Zak’s research, oxytocin is found to play an important role in human empathy, social adjustment, anxiety, and bonding.

Curious about what role oxytocin plays in regards to the grand scheme of human relations? Get this: the lack of oxytocin secretion in the brain is linked to sociopathy, psychopathy, narcissism, and manipulation, or in other words, scary stuff. For example, when individuals with “normal” levels of oxytocin are shown a video of a child with terminal cancer, they tend to experience real, perhaps even severe, empathetic reactions.

However, those who do not produce enough oxytocin feel almost nothing watching the same clip. Those lacking this normal reaction understand the social expectation to nevertheless produce it. They do this by learning certain behaviors that they engage in by processing specific social cues. More so, they must monitor their own tendencies and hide that which they know is uncommon. Well that’s kind of scary, no?

Oxytocin creates the experience of bonding and drives them to emotionally invest in others letting people share their lives and experiences making them less selfish (generally speaking). Yet, this “moral molecule” has an antithesis and it’s called testosterone. Those who possess high levels of it display possessive, assertive, and often selfish behaviors like greed and an excessive gravitation towards competition. A balance between them keeps people from being either too gullible or too paranoid, which is crucial for our survival and wellbeing, but with tip of the scale it all may come crashing down.

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