By Mark Honigsbaum
Lack of trust is at the root of many of the world’s problems, says American neuroeconomist Paul Zak, who claims to have found the brain chemical responsible for empathy. But could oxytocin really help to solve social issues?
Listening to Paul Zak extol the virtues of oxytocin, the “love hormone”, is like hearing a preacher sing the praises of the Promised Land. His idea of a harmonious oxytocin-fuelled society is so seductive you find yourself almost praying it were true. At the same time, you cannot help but wonder if it might be an illusion.
Oxytocin is best known for its use in inducing labour. However, according to Zak, the director of the Centre for Neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University, California, it is also the “social glue” that binds families, communities, and societies, and fosters trust between strangers.
To illustrate his point, at a recent appearance at TED Edinburgh, Zak spritzed the backstage staff with oxytocin, prompting a spontaneous outbreak of group hugging. Indeed, such is Zak’s faith in the bonding hormone that his licence plate reads “oxytosn”. When he texts me to agree a time for our interview, the message reads “From Dr Love’s iPhone”.
When we finally speak, Zak tells me that “oxytocin is primarily a molecule of social connection. It affects every aspect of social and economic life, from who we choose to make investment decisions on our behalf to how much money we donate to charity. Oxytocin tells us when to trust and when to remain wary, when to give and when to hold back.” Read story at guardian.co.uk