Oxytocin: Why some of us are caring, some cruel, some generous, some greedy…

From The Wall Street Journal: The Trust Molecule.  A few choice excerpts from worthy article:

Why are some of us caring and some of us cruel, some generous and some greedy?

Could a single molecule—one chemical substance—lie at the very center of our moral lives?

Research that I have done over the past decade suggests that a chemical messenger called oxytocin accounts for why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted louts, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life…

More strikingly, we found that you don’t need to shoot a chemical up someone’s nose…or even give them a hug in order to create the surge in oxytocin that leads to more generous behavior. To trigger this "moral molecule," all you have to do is give someone a sign of trust. When one person extends himself to another in a trusting way—by, say, giving money—the person being trusted experiences a surge in oxytocin that makes her less likely to hold back and less likely to cheat. Which is another way of saying that the feeling of being trusted makes a person more…trustworthy. Which, over time, makes other people more inclined to trust, which in turn…

If you detect the makings of an endless loop that can feed back onto itself, creating what might be called a virtuous circle—and ultimately a more virtuous society—you are getting the idea.

…oxytocin orchestrates the kind of generous and caring behavior that every culture endorses as the right way to live—the cooperative, benign, pro-social way of living that every culture on the planet describes as "moral." The Golden Rule is a lesson that the body already knows, and when we get it right, we feel the rewards immediately.

A few years ago, I began warning visitors to my lab that before they left, I was going to give them a hug. This scares some people, but I’ve found that my slightly eccentric announcement changes the depth of the conversation, making it more intimate, more engaging and more valuable to us both. I suspect that by forecasting a hug, I’m also signaling how much I trust the person, so I’m inducing a release of oxytocin in their brains. Those people, in turn, will connect better to others and treat them more generously. Nothing grander is required for a virtuous circle to begin.

Image Credit: fl-tsam


  1. I’m a hugger, but I didn’t realize how much good I was doing. Great post!


  2. I had to read this post twice. The first time I thought it was about oxycontin. Shudder to think what just happened in MY brain. I think I need a hug after that.


  3. this is great..i totally believe you…


  4. No surprise, I’m a hugger (and I preface it too, because I offended someone once when I hugged her in an effort to be reassuring without knowing that she really, really, really didn’t like being touched), though I don’t know if I do it as an extension of my trust in the person, or my acknowledgement of them as a fellow human being. I love the idea that gestures like this and actions associated with trust, trip the oxytocin switch and it is exciting to think what would happen if each of us could drive the formation of a kinder, more moral circle by taking responsibility for creating one link.
    I’m probably dating myself, but Dr. Leo Buscaglia did a lot of work on the effects of hugging years ago – some people thought he was a contrivance and a bit over the top. But his premise had parallels to the gist of this article. Yes, I am in the renaissance of my middle age 🙂


  5. I, too, am a hugger and like Mimi, it has gotten me into trouble on a couple of occasions. On the main, though, I think most are pleasantly surprised by the gesture. Sometimes I find myself at a loss for words and a hug seems like the perfect vehicle to convey what I am thinking/feeling in a very efficient, and concrete, way. Didn’t know all the science behind it, just know that it feels right. :-). And I remember Leo Buscaglia! I often thought he was a bit goofy, but it also seemed like he was onto something….


    • Ladies, no hugging here. Therein lies the reason for the post. All part of the grinding, slow evolution for DK, the cro magnon man. Now with science supporting it, where can I hide?


  6. I don’t know whether I really believe this, but it’s an amazing thought. Mind blown. 🙂


  7. Very inspiring post,Dave. Reminds me of the Dan Gilbert research that concludes
    one of the universal traits of happy people is generosity.


  8. Alex Jones says:

    I like it when science comes up with something useful like this observation. This looks like one of the key hormones behind the success of friendship and sexual relationships.


  9. Another good article that was the subject of my own blog post today. Great minds think alike:)


  10. Forget the hug, a simple touch of the hand does it for me!


  11. Reblogged this on Not Perfect Me.


  12. Cast your bread upon the waters!



  1. […] week, David Kanigan turned me on to an article in the Wall Street Journal called ‘The Trust Molecule,’ […]


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