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Trust in the sharing economy: Part IV

Trust, Morality and Oxytocin

For the fourth and last part of our series on the nature of trust, I would like to draw attention to a great TED talk by Paul Zak titled “Trust, Morality and Oxytocin.” In this talk, Zak examines what drives moral decision making and describes biological factors that determine whether humans behave trustworthy or not.

What did he find? In his search for a “moral molecule”, Zak found oxytocin, a hormone that is produced in specific situations in the brain and the blood. With his experiments, he was able to show that people’s trustworthiness and the level of oxytocin in their blood are directly connected. However not only trustworthiness, but also feelings of empathy are promoted by oxytocin. As Zak states:

It’s empathy that makes us connect to other people. It’s empathy that makes us help other people. It’s empathy that makes us moral.

One aspect I found most fascinating about his findings was that when we connect with other people, in person or even through social media, our level of oxytocin spikes – thus leading to more trustworthy behavior.

Even though one should be careful in reducing questions of trust and morality to their biological causes, what can we conclude from this? As Zak would argue, the more we connect with other people and the more relationships we build, the more trustworthy we behave and – ultimately – the more happy we will be. As for promoting trustworthy behavior amongst strangers on the Web, connecting through social media seems to be a good way to start.

Do these ideas fascinate you as much as me? Then you should definitely watch the full talk above.

Paul J. Zak is Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. He has dedicated his studies to Macroeconomics, Finance and Neuroscience and published the book “Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy” in 2008, which reflects his interest in investigating the connections between morality and economic decision making.


  1. Francesca, you have a great knack for finding interesting and provocative pieces and commenting well on them. In this case, though, I want to offer a strongly opposing point of view.

    Zak, like many neuro-obsessives, makes a simple philosophical mistake – and most of us give him a pass because it is “science.” Well, good science shouldn’t be compatible with bad philosophy.

    Let me just quote a few passages from his talk: “Our brains make us moral; I wanted to know if there was a moral molecule; and I found it.” “An experiment designed to see if oxytocin made people moral.” “If I understood the chemistry of trustworthiness, I might help alleviate poverty.” “I knew I’d have to make sure oxytocin caused trustworthiness.”

    All these suggest a fundamental confusion about the nature of cause and effect, and of scientific explanation. In short, Zak thinks that because he has found a narrow, short-term chemical description of a complex neurological and emotional event, that he has “explained” it. He has done no such thing; he has merely described it in a very narrow, proximate-cause chemical way.

    Let me not mince words; this is fundamentally flawed, grossly simplistic thinking.

    Suppose someone said, “Guns don’t kill people; bullets kill people.” You’d either think he was a comedian, or hopelessly literal. Of course bullets “cause” death. Someone who was shot wasn’t killed by blunt force of a gun being thrown at them, but by the bullet fired from the gun. But we would never say “he was bulleted.” We say “he was shot,” pointing to the gun by way of explaining his death (as opposed to many other various explanations for cause of death).

    Suppose the same gunshot victim was the lover of an unfaithful wife, whose jealous husband lost control and killed in a fit of passion. Which statement would best “explain” what happened:

    a. he was with the right woman at the right time in the wrong place

    b. he was the victim of intense jealousy

    c. he took a risky bet, and lost

    d. unlucky in life, unlucky in love

    e. her husband shot him

    f. like many love triangles, it ended badly for one – in this case, him

    g. with that many guns floating around town, it’s a miracle only one man got shot

    h. a bullet got him.

    The right answer would be, all of the above. And you could double the number of “explanations” if you counted the same answers, translated into French, as yet more “explanations.”

    But the relevant truth is, they all describe the same phenomenon. Causality being unprovable (go read Mr. David Hume), explanations come in various forms. Aristotle distinguished between formal, proximate, and final causes, for example: neuroscientists seem to believe that only Aristotle’s proximate causes deserve the title of “explanations.”

    Oxytocin as the “cause” of trust? That’s a joke. At best, it is the chemical means by which our bodies activate the thing we call trustworthiness. It is no more “cause” than is adrenaline the “cause” of our heart rate going up when an attractive member of the opposite sex passes by. It is no more “cause” than are tear ducts the “cause” of us crying when we see a sad movie. And it is even less by way of explanation.

    Zak’s conceit is that he thinks he’s dealing scientifically with a philosophical question. He’s not: he’s dealing scientifically with a children’s version of a philosophical question. Unfortunately, he is not alone in this new field.

    • Thanks so much for your great comment, Charles, I could not agree more. Having just come from the academic field myself, I am very aware of the conflict in trying to understand such a multilayered phenomenon as trust and morality with scientifc experiments. Many of his statements are extremely simplistic and were, as I assumed, reduced in complexity purposely to make it easier to please the audience…From my perspective it was always out of the question that an acutual “cause” of moral behavior could ever be found, I simply thought Zak had some interesting observations.


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