What if you could convince people to trust you and take risks for you with just a few drops of liquid surreptitiously placed in their water? There would be no drunkenness, no rufie-esque glazed eyes: just pure, human trust created via chemicals. The person wouldn't even know they'd been dosed. A study coming out tomorrow in the journal Neuron explains how this scenario is possible today, with just a small dose of the brain chemical oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a chemical associated with many of the "pleasurable" feelings you have, from basic trust, to love and orgasm. Researchers in Switzerland theorized that people playing social trust games might change their behaviors if given doses of oxytocin, since the chemical might artificially enhance their willingness to trust someone. Indeed, they were right: subjects dosed with Oxytocin were willing to trust people even after they'd been explicitly told that those people had behaved in untrustworthy ways in the past. People who had not been dosed did not trust the "untrustworthy" people.
According to a release from Neuron:
In their experiments, the researchers asked volunteer subjects to play two types of games—a trust game and a risk game. In the trust game, subjects were asked to contribute money, with the understanding that a human trustee would invest the money and decide whether to return the profits, or betray the subjects' trust and keep all the money. In the risk game, the subjects were told that a computer would randomly decide whether their money would be repaid or not.
The subjects also received doses of either the brain chemical oxytocin (OT) or a placebo via nasal spray. They chose OT because studies by other researchers had shown that OT specifically increases people's willingness to trust others.
During the games, the subjects' brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging. This common analytical technique involves using harmless magnetic fields and radio waves to map blood flow in brain regions, which reflects brain activity.
The researchers found that—in the trust game, but not the risk game—OT reduced activity in two brain regions: the amygdala, which processes fear, danger and possibly risk of social betrayal; and an area of the striatum, part of the circuitry that guides and adjusts future behavior based on reward feedback.
Baumgartner and colleagues concluded that their findings showed that oxytocin affected the subjects' responses specifically related to trust . . . "If subjects face social risks, such as in the trust game, those who received placebo respond to the feedback with a decrease in trusting behavior while subjects with OT demonstrate no change in their trusting behavior although they were informed that their interaction partners did not honor their trust in roughly 50% of the cases."
So basically you've got the world's scariest date-rape drug ever — one that persuades people to trust the untrustworthy and take risks with them. The researchers don't see it that way, however. They think it means there's potential to help people with social phobias who have trouble responding with normal trust levels in situations that call for it. I'm all for that, but I'm not looking forward to hearing about oxytocin parties in dorms.
Brain's Trust Machinery Identified [Eurekalert]