Chemical Trust and the Science of Explanation

The Wall Street Journal this weekend scored a lot of views with an article on Oxytocin titled, “The Trust Molecule,” by Dr. Paul Zak.

Dr. Zak makes one critical, powerful point about trust – its reciprocal nature.  Unfortunately, the article is seriously flawed in its approach to what it calls “the new science of morality.”

Science, schmience.

But let’s start with that one good point.

Reciprocal Trust

In discussions about trust, people frequently forget a very simple fact: like tango, it takes two to trust. One party does the trusting, the other party is the one trusted. Risk is taken by the one doing the trusting, and the one who is trusted is the source of that risk.

Critically, the interaction between the trustor and the trustee is reciprocal. One influences the other.

Dr. Zak says, about how to trigger this reaction:

…all you have to do is give someone a sign of trust. When one person extends himself to another in a trusting way—by, say, giving money—the person being trusted experiences a surge in oxytocin that makes her less likely to hold back and less likely to cheat. Which is another way of saying that the feeling of being trusted makes a person more…trustworthy. Which, over time, makes other people more inclined to trust, which in turn…

So right! But where Zak goes wrong is in thinking that by identifying the role of oxytocin, he’s actually explained something.

Chemistry as Explanation

Zak says flat out in the article that oxytocin is an explanation for a variety of human phenomena:

“Research that I have done over the past decade suggests that a chemical messenger called oxytocin accounts for why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted louts, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life, why some husbands are more faithful than others, and why women tend to be nicer and more generous than men.” (italics mine)

It is no such thing.

For example, Zak hardly discovered the reciprocal nature of trust.

More than half a century ago, Henry Stimson said, “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.” Before that, Ralpho Waldo Emerson said, “Trust men and they will be true to you.” I doubt either knew of oxytocin.

Much more importantly, calling oxytocin an explanation for trust is like saying you can explain water by translating the word into the French eau.

What Makes For an Explanation

Philosophers (and good scientists) have for millennia suggested that good explanations fit certain criteria. A good explanation might put things in a larger context, as Darwin did with evolution. Or it might suggest a causal link, like tying cigarette smoking to cancer, or lack of hand-washing to sepsis in hospitals. Or, it might shed light on motives, as does the ending of any good TV crime drama.

What Mr. Zak has done is nothing of the kind. He has merely “translated” pieces of wisdom that humans have known for ages into the language of chemistry.

There is a nearly infinite number of ways we can describe any particular phenomenon. I can use the “languages” of poetry, reporting, drama, song, chemistry, and Freudian psychology – all different ways to describe the same underlying phenomena. None have a monopoly on telling the “why” – they are only variations on “how?”

The only relevant question to be asked among these choices is – which is more useful for the task at hand?

Yet Dr. Zak seems to believe he’s on to something. As he puts it:

“After centuries of speculation about human nature and how we decide what is the right thing to do, we at last have some news we can use…many group activities—singing, dancing, praying—cause the release of oxytocin and promote connection and caring.”

The idea that prayer can promote connection and caring, for example, is hardly new.

I fear that Dr. Zak is but one example of the current faddish approach to things neurological. Putting “neuro-” in front of a topic seems to generate groupie-like behavior in business. Hence we have neuro-marketing, neuro-advertising, neuro-leadership – the list is endless.

But like the Emperor’s new clothes, there’s not much ‘there’ there. Not all description deserves to be called an “explanation.”

Though whatever language you say it in, trusting someone does cause them to be more trustworthy

5 replies
  1. Bwhipple
    Bwhipple says:

    Right on, Charlie.  Good piece, as usual. I think the flaw is that Dr. Zak is trying too hard to find a causal relationship.

    It is like the Cheerio’s advertisement, where they link eating more whole grain with heart health. The ad says scientists have discovered that people who eat whole grains tend to have fewer heart attacks.  The implication in the advertisement is that if you eat more whole grains you will have lower risk of a heart attack. 

    The observation is undoubtedly true, but we should not think that going out and eating a bunch of Cheerios will prevent us from having  a heart attack.  What the advertisement fails to point out is that people who tend to eat more whole grains are much more conscientious about their health in general including diet, exercise, and other life habits. That is the true causal relationship.

    If you want to lower your risk of a heart attack, then change your life habits; don’t just go out and buy Cheerios. 

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Thanks Bob, always appreciate your perspective. 

      I totally agree with you about the Cheerios example; it’s amazing how many of those multi-colinear examples abound in advertising. And that doesn’t even touch the “if you drink X beer you’ll get the pretty girls…” thing.

      The causal issues can get complex. I could actually believe pretty easily that oxytocin is the direct chemical agent for a set of physiological reactions. But even if so, that raises several other questions.  

      First, are those reactions what we call ‘trust’? Or do they also include optimism, generosity, beneficence, mellow-ness; and what’s the difference? That is, what is the thing that we are claiming is caused, even if there’s no doubt of a causal driver of a reaction?

      Then there’s the issue I was trying to get it regarding description. If I give a toast at a wedding, do I really add anything by way of explanation when I say that the toast was ’caused’ by the chemical reaction which drove me to raise my arm as the result of a series of neurochemical transmissions from my brain?  

      We might as well say education is ’caused’ by the chemical reactions in my eyes resulting from the reflection of light off the patterns of ink in a thing we call a ‘book.’

      I’m not being very precise about this, but somehow merely describing something just feels like it falls short of giving an explanation, even if there’s something to the causal connection. Nor does eating Cheerios particularly ‘explain’ good heart health. 

  2. David Gebler
    David Gebler says:

    Excellent insights Charlie.
    Zak’s premise confirms one of our greatest challenges in developing trust-based and values-based organizations: he feeds the notion that magic pills will solve the problem. How many people read that article thinking that if they could just take some oxytocin they will have trusted relationships.
    Rarely does one see cause and effect so mixed up.

    David Gebler is the President of Skout Group, LLC and the author of The 3 Power Values: How Commitment, Integrity and Transparency Clear the Roadblocks to Performance (2012 Wiley)

  3. Worldcitizenjs
    Worldcitizenjs says:

    It’s a matter of competing ideologies, Charles. He thinks like a scientist. Then, again, he is one. Actually, there are multiple explanations for everything. Every book on the shelf claims it’s reasoning is correct, too. Do they not?
         Are you Charles? Charlie? If he did not have the technology to find that little molecule would there be a thing called Oxytocin? (How small is that molecule to him? How small is it to you? How small is it in a microscope? How do we use the “diminutive” in speech?)
         Do you remember our email discussion about “ideology”? But no one else HAD that discussion, except you and I.


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