Paul Zak's "Trust, morality -- and oxytocin": Criticisms & updates

At TEDGlobal 2011, economist Paul Zak gave a talk titled “Trust, morality -- and oxytocin?” The talk focused on the benefits of the hormone oxytocin, which he dubbed the “moral molecule.” But even at that time research challenging the role of oxytocin in human morality and behavior was already well known.

Although the hormone has been shown to affect human and animal behavior to increase trust in some research, including Zak’s, other studies have found that the molecule can boost envy, tribalism, and even diminish cooperation. And trials of the hormone as a treatment for conditions such as autism have had mixed results.

There is rarely a simple cause and effect in the brain; in other words, the effect of oxytocin on social behaviors is complicated. As with all science, research is ongoing, including studies to compare the effects of oxytocin made in the brain versus oxytocin delivered from external sources. If you have further comments or information you feel should be added to this update, please contact us with the subject line “Paul Zak comment.”

Updated October 2017