The molecule that determines morality

May 23, 2012

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Ever wonder why you might bestow trust upon someone, why you can be cruel to a complete stranger, or be prone to risk-taking?

What about the Golden Rule? I learned about the "treat others as you’d want to be treated" in my Sunday School days at Douglas Park Covenant Church. Confucius referred to the concept as reciprocity, adding, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself." 

Even before the Code of Hammurabi spelled out the idea in 1780 BCE, our bodies and evolution were already at work helping us navigate between good and evil, trust and suspicion, aggression and passivity. Turns out it’s all chemical; well mostly one chemical, according to neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak.

In his new book, The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, Zak argues that oxytocin can be seen as the master switch in our brain that regulates whether someone will jump on train tracks to save a complete stranger from death, or prompt someone to freely give money to a person they’ve never known before that encounter.

If you’re thinking there’s a word related to all this you’re right: That word is trust. When we trust someone we not only shed some of that armor, we’re more likely releasing more oxytocin into our bloodstream.

OK, so what does all this mean? Zak says if we understand oxytocin, aka "The Moral Molecule," we can knowingly use it make our lives better. But before you embark on that challenge there is one warning: Beware testosterone; it tends to be the kill joy. Zak shares more of his findings on Wednesday's Eight Forty-Eight.