Trust, Networking, and Social Media

In the TED talk Oxytocin, the Moral Molecule, Dr. Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, describes how oxytocin is responsible for empathy and why it is the “moral molecule” in humans.

The talk raises an interesting question. Most people believe that Morality is something learned, rather than born with. And that Morality is what distinguishes men from animals. Is there really a biological basis for Morality? If yes, how does it produce/modulate moral behaviors? And if not, why did Morals develop and how does that fit into the evolutionary social dynamics?

Oxytocin is a chemical found in both humans and animals, released during activities such as breast-feeding, massage, prayer, and sex. It is involved commonly involved in pair-bonding. Zak describes his initial experiement in which a game involving money transfers between participants was used to study the level of oxytocin in participants that demonstrated trust or trustworthiness (Zak et al. 2004).

All participants received $10 for showing-up and were assigned to be either Decision Maker 1 (DM-1) or Decision Maker 2 (DM-2). Participants do not communicate directly with each other and all interactions occur via the computer. At the start of the game, both DMs are told that whatever amount of money DM1 transfers to DM2 will be tripled into DM2’s account. DM2 will then have the option to send any amount of money back to DM1. The level of trust is measured by the amount of money DM1 sends to DM2, and the level of trustworthiness is represented by the amount of money DM2 sends back to DM1.When DM2s received money, their oxytocin levels went up but there was no change in oxytocin levels in DM1s who gave money to DM2s (Zak et al. 2004, Zak et al. 2005).

This means there is a positive relationship between oxytocin levels and being shown trust (Zak et al. 2004). However, oxytocin is not responsible for producing trust itself (Zak et al. 2005). Trustworthiness is also linked to oxytocin because the oxytocin response and the high level of trustworthiness disappear when DM2s don’t receive any money from DM1s (Zak et al. 2004).

What happens when we deliberately disrupt the oxytocin level?

Using the same money transfer game, researchers found that participants given oxytocin through a nose spray showed a more trusting behaviour (Kosfeld 2005); that is, DM1s given oxytocin transferred more money than DM1s given just a placebo. However, a similar effect on trustworthiness was not observed. DM2s given oxytocin did not show higher signs of trustworthiness (higher back transfers) compared to DM2s given a placebo.

Oxytocin just helped participants overcome their avoidance of betrayal to take more social risks (Kosfeld 2005). In more general terms, oxytocin level enables the return of favors.

So oxytocin is linked with trust and trust-worthiness. Zak then describes studies linking oxytocin production and  empathy, suggests empathy as the basis of Morality, thus connecting Oxytocin to Morality.

But I want to emphasize on the correlation of oxytocin level with trust. In another study, Zak tested the blood oxytocin level of attendees to a Korean broadcasting event. He found one person had a 150% increase in the blood oxytocin level. The individual was a reporter typing away on his computer during the event, and Zak hypothesized that he was either talking to his mom or girlfriend.

Turns out he was checking his girlfriend’s facebook page prior to the blood draw.

So social media, virtual connections can also stimulate the release of oxytocin and thus strengthen trust and pair-bonding. While not too surprising, it suggests one can leverage social media to create and amplify trust.

As elegantly stated in the article Tips on Networking from 125 Years Ago, the key to advertising and networking is repetition, to ‘show your face’. Everyone knows that familiarity tends to create trust, even if it’s someone who you see in the hallway everyday but never talked to.

With all the publicity channels on the web: twitter, facebook, linkedin, and even Google, it becomes much easier to increase the baseline level of trust: Person A meets Person B briefly for a few minutes,then A friends B on facebook, add him on LinkedIn, follows him on Twitter. A might find out within seconds about mutual friends (fb), recommendation from those mutual friends (linkedIn), and similar opinions about events that just happened (twitter).

The multiple channels accelerate the “show your face” process considerably, and the more channels people can find out about you, the more compressed this process becomes. This is similar to going on dates that involve multiple locations–besides being fun, the act of moving from place to place creates the impression that two people have known each other for a much longer time.

Repeated exposure is key to trust. And now we know a bit about its biological basis-Oxytocin. Every time person A finds out about person B on one of the numerous web channels, his Oxytocin level increases–because B has exposed himself to person A and everyone else on the web. Thus within one day, person B’s oxytocin level could be stimulated many times by associations with person A, a process that could have taken days or months otherwise.

And finally, a gem from Zak’s talk. Trust in people/things around you is correlated with happiness, and thus high oxytocin level is linked to happiness. The happiest people are more likely to be trustful. One of the easiest and most effective way to increase oxytocin level is hugs, and 8 hugs a day, according to Zak, will increase your oxytocin level to make you feel ‘happy’.

Try it.

About collapsedwavefn

I have a lot of thoughts. Some of them I'd like to share.
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