Who do you trust? How much? And why do you trust them?

Last week, researchers in Zurich got a fair amount of media attention by mixing hormones with economics to reveal the biochemistry of trust.

The research consists of a small exercise in experimental economics conducted in a lab. Basically, one person starts out with some money. They can give anywhere from none to all of their money to another person. Once in the hands of the recipient, the amount is increased four times. The recipient can then share some, all, or none of this greater amount with the giver. The giver and the recipient do not know who the other is, so they can’t make deals.

If you think this experiment as bizarre, you are not alone. One of the criticisms of experimental economics is that it inappropriately generalizes from highly artificial circumstances to real life.

But back to the experiment. Because the outcome of the transaction depends on how much the giver trusts the recipient to share, the researchers looked at whether a hormone, oxytocin, affected giver trust.

Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus. It acts as a hormone during childbirth, but it also acts neurologically in forming social and personal attachments. Some of the givers took oxytocin using an inhaler, which enables it to cross the blood-brain barrier rapidly and become neurologically active.

The givers who snorted oxytocin handed out more money than those who did not. The researchers concluded that oxytocin caused givers to have greater trust in recipients. The researchers went on to speculate about how this could help understand and treat people with extreme approach and avoidance behavior, such as people with autism.

I don’t know about you, but my paranoid tendencies kicked in with visions of oxytocin in the air conditioning systems of car dealer showrooms and political convention halls. But as the neurobiologist Antonio Damasio points out in a comment to the research, there’s no need to worry. We already have our own mechanisms for generating oxytocin that are manipulated quite effectively by public relations departments, ad agencies, and Karl Rove.

So what does this experiment tell us? The most remarkable thing was not commented on at all: even without oxytocin, givers gave to strangers and recipients shared for no good reason, at least in the calculus of individualism that passes for rationality in our culture.

We want to be generous and trusting. It is as natural to us as being cautious. So let’s put away the inhalers and work on creating the institutional and personal relationships that give us an oxytocin boost.