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