Trust, morality and oxytocin

by thewheatandthechaff

What drives our desire to behave morally? In an old TED talk, neuroeconomist Paul Zak shows why he believes oxytocin (he calls it “the moral molecule”) is responsible for trust, empathy and other feelings that help build a stable society. A pioneer in his field, Zak explains how oxytocin promotes trust in particular, and suggests that love can be good for business.

Calling himself “Dr Love”, Zak greets everyone he meets with a powerful and heartfelt hug. This, he explains, is to release oxytocin in both parties and create both a mutual bond and a sense of wellbeing. Zak prescribes at least eight hugs a day for our general well being and happiness. But it’s not just physical proximity and contact that causes the molecule to be released into the blood. This can be done by emotional proximity too.

In a now famous experiment he attended a friend’s wedding with a very large amount of blood testing equipment and measured the levels of oxytocin in the bridal party and guests both before and immediately after the service. Not only was there a significant oxytocin spike in the bride’s blood but also in family of the bride and the guests too. Clearly the emotion of the event was capable of triggering a release in oxytocin that in turn created a stronger bond between the participants.

Zak describes a cycle of events. An action or event creates empathy that causes the release of oxytocin which in its turn increases the levels of trust leading to further empathy building behaviour. In other words there is a virtuous circle of virtue.


The advertising industry has known for some time now that emotional persuasion is more potent than rational persuasion when it comes to marketing communications, but still have no real answer as to why this is the case. Does oxytocin hold the key?  Zak et al have already shown that giving oxytocin to people who are then exposed to fundraising advertising increases the average donation made by research participants in comparison with those administered a placebo. But it has yet to be proven whether an ad itself can trigger a rush of oxytocin that in turn builds affinity with the brand itself and influences purchase behaviour.

Neuroscientists like Zak undoubtedly have more of an idea how the brain works than marketers an idea of how advertising works, and I’d wager they might even be able to give the ad industry more of an idea about how advertising works.

However, more research is emerging which muddies the waters. While oxytocin has been linked to improving trust and bonding in some situations, equally, it’s linked with bias, favouritism and shadenfreude in others. The first two are clearly useful for advertisers, but it is probably too simplistic to think of the hormone as being the fount of morality. As Ben Goldacre (who has skewered Zak on his Bad Science blog in the past) is wont to say, “it’s a bit more complicated than that”.

So, in the meantime, expect for brands and marketers to keep calm and carry on ‘doing a John Lewis’ – without really understanding how it works – for the foreseeable future.