[Pophealth] An article from npr.org on Oxytocin
Alison.Eisinger at METROKC.GOV
Thu Jun 2 17:20:54 PDT 2005
I have to say, I heard the piece on NPR this morning, and perhaps due to my
formative experience as a New Yorker, I had a completely different response
to the results! As I heard the description of the experiment, I found
myself laughing and shaking my head, because the experiment's design
(anonymous person offers to transfer money to your account if you first
transfer money to that person's account) exactly replicates a classic scam.
I won't go into the details, but it involves taking advantage of people's
good impulses to help someone who is usually portrayed as an immigrant
unfamiliar with U.S. banking mechanisms. There are multiple versions of
this scam, which can be done over the phone, through e-mail, or on the
street. I first learned about it from my immigrant father, who carefully
explained to me how it works, so that I wouldn't be taken in.
My conclusion: the researchers may be getting an answer to a question they
didn't ask. The article Stephen forwarded makes clear that the increased
trust on the part of one person is completely unrelated to the
trustworthiness of the other. Oxytocin-dosing may deprive subjects of
valuable skeptical impulses which would protect them from harm, both
individually, and at the societal level. I propose that this line of
research might help us to explore the mysteriously misplaced trust that huge
numbers of the voting population of the U.S. seem to place in the notion
that their interests are advanced by certain national policies.
Alison Eisinger, M.S.W.
Communities Count Social and Health Indicators Initiative
Epidemiology, Planning, and Evaluation Unit
Public Health -- Seattle & King County
999 Third Ave., Suite 1200
Seattle, WA 98104
Tel. (206) 296.2766
Fax (206) 205.5314
Alison.Eisinger at metrokc.gov
From: David Stern Levitt [mailto:figment at u.washington.edu]
Sent: Thursday, June 02, 2005 9:24 AM
To: Population Health Forum
Subject: [Pophealth] An article from npr.org on Oxytocin
Below is a link to an NPR report on the "trust hormone," Oxytocin.
Eventually Oxytocin levels may become a measure of the health of a
> David Levitt thought you would be interested in this story: "NPR :
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> Please click on the headline to the story using a RealAudio or
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> For players or technical support, please visit NPR's Audio Help page.
> *Order a text transcript of this story*
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>I've previously pointed out the relationship between oxytocin and trust,=20
and its relationship with income inequality (Uslaner's The Moral=20
Foundations of Trust and others). Today's premier journal, Nature,=20
carried the results of an experiment as well as an editorial (below) which=
was rather typical for being written by an American and fearing politicans=
would spray the stuff around during elections! The New York Times also=20
suggested the expected individual response. As DAvid Levitt pointed out,=
NPR picked it up too. So we should mention the relationbship with income=
inequality within the US and among countries (graphs on pg 41-2 of=20
WIlkinson's The Impact of Inequality).
Someday, perhaps in addition to nasal sprays for allergies and wheezing,=20
we'll carry a canister of oxytocin there with our iPod. But the basics=20
suggest that with our declining levels of trust in the US, our oxytocin=20
titers must be dropping. I don't think nasal sprays are the answer.
Trust, and Oxytocin administration
Damasio, A. (2005). =D2Human behaviour Brain trust.=D3 Nature 435(7042):=20
Kosfeld, M., M. Heinrichs, et al. (2005). =D2Oxytocin increases trust in=20
humans.=D3 Nature 435(7042): 673-676.
Nature June 2, 2005, 435 pg 571-2 HUMAN BEHAVIOUR Brain trust Antonio=20
As is the case with other social interactions, financial transactions=20
depend on trust. That fact is behind ingenious experiments that explore=20
the neurobiological underpinnings of human behaviour.
Michael Kosfeld and his colleagues got students in Zurich to play a=20
serious game. The game involved real monetary exchanges between two people=
playing the anonymous roles of =D4investor=D5 and =D4trustee=D5; beforehand=
subject had received either the neuropeptide oxytocin or an inert placebo,=
via nasal spray.
As a group, the investors who received oxytocin exhibited more trust in=20
the anonymous trustee than did the investors who received the placebo.=20
Because intranasally administered oxytocin crosses the blood-brain barrier=
into the central nervous system, Kosfeld et al. (page 673 of this issue)1=
conclude that the central action of oxytocin increases trusting behaviour;=
and because the oxytocin spray did not change the behaviour of the=20
trustees, it seems that oxytocin only increases trust, not the reliability=
of the trustee. This is a remarkable finding, and to explain its=20
significance we must first say a word about trust and about oxytocin=20
Given the polarities of reward and punishment that pervade biology at=20
various levels, trust is essential for the normal operation of human=20
societies. Remove trust and you compromise love, friendship, trade and=20
leadership. Little is known about the neurobiology of trust, although the=
phenomenon is beginning to attract attention2.
As for oxytocin, it is a small peptide, consisting of nine amino acids,=20
that is produced mostly in the hypothalamus, the brain=D5s master controlle=
of biological regulation, including emotion. Oxytocin acts both on certain=
targets of the body (it is best known for inducing labour and lactation)=20
and on brain regions whose function is associated with emotional and=20
social behaviours (the amygdala and nucleus accumbens, for example) --=20
that is, it works both as a hormone and as a neuromodulator, a kind of=20
neurotransmitter. In animals, oxytocin contributes to social attachments,=
including male and female bonding after mating, mother and infant bonding=
after childbirth, and assorted sexual behaviours3,4. Besides triggering=20
complex and specific action-programmes, oxytocin may well work part of its=
charm by selectively lowering the natural resistance that animals have to=
the proximity of others, thus facilitating what is known as =D4approach=20
Given this background, Kosfeld et al.1 hypothesized, reasonably and=20
perceptively, that oxytocin might be involved in trusting behaviour in=20
humans. After all, trust and approach behaviour are indelibly linked. We=20
commonly describe the child who approaches others with ease as =D4trusting=
and we use comparable descriptions for animals in similar situations.=20
Kosfeld and colleagues=D5 finding supports their hypothesis and opens the=
way to a richer understanding of perhaps the most complex tier of human=20
social interactions. I once likened5 oxytocin to a love potion, the magic=
elixir that makes Tristan fall for Isolde: add trust to the mix, for there=
is no love without trust.
Kosfeld et al. provide an engaging discussion of the possible mechanisms=20
behind their finding. They reject the possibility that oxytocin has a=20
nonspecific positive effect on social behaviour, because of its different=
influence on investors and trustees. Approach and trust possibly dominate=
the behaviour of investors, and that is where oxytocin works, whereas=20
trustee behaviour is dominated by a principle of reciprocity, for which=20
oxytocin seems irrelevant. Kosfeld et al. also reject the possibility that=
oxytocin merely reduces the sensitivity to risk, because in a control=20
experiment in which the investors knew the trustee was a computer, they=20
did not take any extra risks. The authors finally settle for an attractive=
pair of factors: that oxytocin overcomes the aversion to betrayal (which=20
applies only to the investors), and that this is combined with the effects=
of reward that result from enhanced approach behaviour.
The significance of the study lies in what it can tell us about=20
non-experimental circumstances, when the equivalent of an investor is not=
sniffing oxytocin. What might be happening then? First, perceiving certain=
social configurations probably leads to oxytocin release in selected brain=
regions -- that is, the cognitive appraisal of a situation, based on an=20
individual=D5s genetic make-up and past experience, triggers a chain of=20
neural events that includes (but is not limited to) the release of=20
oxytocin. Second, oxytocin modulates the activity of cognitive neural=20
networks, resulting in enhanced trusting behaviour. Whether this result is=
achieved via a mostly unconscious bias (by altering the competition among=
ensembles of neurons that represent varied choice options), or a conscious=
deliberative process, remains to be established -- although the evidence=20
seems to favour the former possibility in the current experiment. However,=
the input, along the cognitive chain, of neural events arising in brain=20
areas associated with social and emotional responses is a requisite part=20
of the explanation. The finding points to the crucial involvement of=20
emotional phenomena in the processes leading from cognition to behaviour.
The authors=D5 results open up possibilities for investigating conditions i=
which trust is either diminished, as in autism, or augmented. For example,=
patients with bilateral damage to the amygdala approach strangers with=20
unusual ease, and fail to recognize untrustworthy individuals whom normal=
people would resolutely avoid6. In this case, damage to the amygdala may=20
prevent the detection of the potential threat evoked by certain stimuli.=20
And children with Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, approach=20
strangers fearlessly and indiscriminately7. Might their high level of=20
trust be due to excessive oxytocin release?
Some may worry about the prospect that political operators will generously=
spray the crowd with oxytocin at rallies of their candidates. The scenario=
may be rather too close to reality for comfort, but those with such fears=
should note that current marketing techniques -- for political and other=20
products -- may well exert their effects through the natural release of=20
molecules such as oxytocin in response to well-crafted stimuli. Civic=20
alarm at the prospect of such abuses should have started long before this=
study, and the authors cannot be blamed for raising it. Whatever the=20
beneficial biomedical applications, or the abuses, may turn out to be,=20
Kosfeld et al. have made a valuable contribution to our understanding of=20
the role of neuromodulators in human behaviour that involves choice.
=A5 Antonio Damasio is in the Department of Neurology, University of Iowa=
College of Medicine, 200 Hawkins Drive, Iowa City, Iowa 52242, USA.
e-mail: antonio-damasio at uiowa.edu
1. Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U. & Fehr, E.=20
Nature 435, 673-676 (2005).
2. King-Casas, B. et al. Science 308, 78-83 (2005).
3. Carter, C. S. Psychoneuroendocrinology 23, 779-818 (1998).
4. Insel, T. R. & Shapiro, L. E. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 89, 5981-5985=20
5. Damasio, A. R. Descartes=D5 Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain=
(Penguin, New York, 1994).
6. Adolphs, R. & Damasio, A. R. Nature 393, 470-474 (1998).
7. Doyle, T. F. et al. Am. J. Med. Genet. 124A, 263-273 (2004).
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