A new study has concluded that sniffing a substance that occurs naturally in everyones body makes people trust others with their money.
Scientists have often suspected that oxytocin, a neuropeptide involved in various behaviors related to emotion, plays a key role in trust. In humans, oxytocin induces childbirth and lactation, and plays a key role in maternal bonding, while in animals, researchers believe it encourages mating by suspending the animals normal wariness of other animals which allows "approach behavior."
A research team at the University of Zurich in Switzerland put the theory to the test and they found that study volunteers were more trusting with their money after they sniffed oxytocin.
In the study 45 percent of the oxytocin sniffers displayed what the scientists determined to be the "highest level of trust" with their money, while only 21 percent of those in the placebo group were as trusting.
Brooks King-Casas, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who reviewed the study but did not participate in it, says this is the first paper to provide positive evidence of the relationship of this neuropeptide to the complex social behavior we call trust.
In the study 128 men played a trust game. The oxytocin sniffers acted as investors who could either transfer money to a trustee, knowing the trustee had the option of investing the money and sharing the proceeds, or keep all the money to themselves. The authors say that previous studies have shown that humans are averse to such risks. But it was found that after sniffing oxytocin, the investors' average transfer was 17 percent higher than that of a control group that received a placebo.
According to the scientists the research may help them understand how humans decide to trust when faced with an acquaintance who wants to borrow money, or how they decide to cross the street when a shady character is approaching. They also believe they can gain insight into brain injuries and disorders like Williams syndrome, which causes people to approach strangers without fear or discrimination, and autism, which is associated with distrust.
But the study has caused alarm in some quarters. Watchdog groups such as Commercial Alert are concerned that this type of research is another step toward marketers controlling what we buy or who we vote for, and many feel at present the science of mapping the brain and behavior is creating more questions than answers.
Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, says that the use of drugs to manipulate human emotions is not new, and as he points out, there are spies and barflies who rely on alcohol to get people to trust them or at least let their guard down. He feel any new knowledge of the chemistry of the brain as reflected in this study promises to raise some of the most difficult questions of bioethics ever encountered.
In an earlier study King-Casas and his colleagues used fMRI to study the mechanism of trust in the human brain showing where and how trust decisions develop in the brain.
They are currently launching a new study which looks at how research subjects in California and Hong Kong foster trust.
King-Casas says they will find out how manipulating peoples' expectations about country of origin changes their behavior, which is a critical question in diplomacy.
Antonio Damasio, head of neurology at the University of Iowa, in a Nature commentary that accompanies the research paper says that even if this line of research engenders visions of political campaigners spraying oxytocin into belligerent crowds, it's far too late to stop it, and civic alarm at the prospect of such abuses should have started long before this study. He says the authors cannot be blamed for raising it.
The studies are published in the April 1 issue of Science and in the June 2 issue of Nature.