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Trust in a bottle

June 1, 2005 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Nasal spray makes people more likely to place faith in another person.

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Can you bottle trust? The answer, it seems, is yes. Researchers have produced a potion that, when sniffed, makes people more likely to give their cash to someone to look after.

A Swiss-led research team tested their creation on volunteers playing an investment game for real money. When they inhaled the nasal spray, investors were more likely to hand over money to a trustee, knowing that, although they could make a hefty profit, they could also lose everything if the trustee decided not to give any of the money back.

The potion's magic ingredient is oxytocin, a chemical that is produced naturally in the brain. Its production is triggered by a range of stimuli, including sex and breastfeeding, and it is known to be important in the formation of social ties, such as mating pairs and parent-offspring bonds. It is perhaps no surprise that the compound has been nicknamed the 'love hormone'.

Increasing trust may be useful for people with social phobia or autism.
Ernst Fehr
University of Zurich, Switzerland
Experts think that oxytocin exerts its range of effects by boosting some social behaviours: it may encourage animals or people to overcome their natural wariness when faced with a risky situation. The theory argues that people only decide to trust each other - when forming a sexual or business relationship, for example - when the brain's oxytocin production is boosted.

Love is in the air

The researchers, led by Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich, investigated whether this effect can be produced simply by getting people to inhale oxytocin rather than stimulating them to produce it. Such chemicals, they explain, can easily enter the brain when sniffed.

In the game, investors were allotted 12 monetary credits, each worth 40 Swiss centimes (32 US cents), and asked to decide how much to give to the trustee. The participants knew that the investment would be quadrupled, and that the trustee could then decide how much, if any, to hand back.

Investors were more willing to part with their cash when they inhaled the potion, Fehr's team reports in Nature1. Of 29 subjects given oxytocin, 13 handed over all of their cash. Only 6 of the 29 subjects given a placebo to sniff invested all 12 of their credits.

When the human trustee was replaced with a random number generator the effect disappeared. This shows, the researchers say, that oxytocin specifically boosts social interactions, rather than simply making people more willing to take risks.

Business of trust

Knowing more about how trust is encouraged could help with everything from business to the treatment of psychological conditions. Damping trust may be useful for people with Williams syndrome, for example, in which patients are overly friendly. "Increasing trust may be useful for people with social phobia or autism," Fehr adds.

Oxytocin is "easy and cheap to produce and it is easy to get it in drug stores, at least in Switzerland," Fehr says. So does that mean it could be pumped into the air in department stores by unscrupulous salespeople, turning us all into soft targets?

Perhaps, but it seems a trifle extravagant, says Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Modern advertising already uses tricks to get us to trust a brand that probably make us boost our own oxytocin levels. "It lures you in with images of wonderful landscapes or sex, and it probably works in exactly the same way," says Damasio.

References

  1. Kosfeld M., Heinrichs M., Zak P. J., Fischbacher U. & Fehr E. Nature, 435. 673 - 676 (2005).

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