raging hormones

A while ago (on May 13th, if you want to dig it out of the archives) I wrote about the hormone ocytocin, which stimulates the response of attachment, whether it’e2’80’99s between mothers and newborns, between mates, or one’e2’80’99s pet Rottweiler.

Now they’e2’80’99ve found another use for it–and I’e2’80’99m waiting to see who grabs it first for their thriller. Because in an experiment in Zurich, 178 male students in their twenties played an investment game, involving how much to trust a ‘e2’80’9ctrustee’e2’80’9d broker with. After a shot of oxytocin nasal spray, just like is used to stimulate the let-down reflex in nursing mothers, 45 percent of the lads invested the highest amount of money they were permitted, compared to 21 percent investing the lowest amount. Without the hormone, the stats were directly reversed toward the conservative, with 21 percent investing the highest amount, and 45 percent the lowest.

And because these good Swiss scientists wanted to be sure it was trust they were looking at and not a general increase in risk-taking or something (as if a mothering hormone would involve a biological thrust towards risky living–although, come to think of it…) they ran the experiment again, making the trustee-entity a computer program this time. And with a neutral machine in charge, the investors put out roughly the same amount of money, whether they’e2’80’99d received the oxytocin or not.

I suppose the point of this is, don’e2’80’99t go see your shady broker of used-car dealer just after you’e2’80’99ve nursed your baby, moms. And if someone asks you to try this new nasal spray and then suggests that they’e2’80’99d be a really super person to give power of attorney, just listen to the little alarm bells behind those raging hormones, and remember: You heard it here first.

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  1. Samantha on June 8, 2005 at 6:14 pm

    I saw this news item last week-end when I was in New York for BEA (I wish you had been there.) It does sound like a good plot device for a book. The intervewee said that it can’t be pumped into the air, so that people can’t take it without their knowledge. He also said that the effect only lasts for a few minutes. But really, how long do we expect it to stay like that? It won’t be long until it’ll be pumped into car dealerships and real estate offices. Then the fun begins. People will begin to complain that they are loosing their freedom of choice, and free will. Ooooo, now it sounds like a sci-fi novel. 🙂

    What’ll they think of next?

  2. 2maple on June 9, 2005 at 1:42 pm

    Interesting idea, the possibilities are endless.

    Could you imagine what would happen at a college fraternity party?…or following another random thought, in a Las Vegas casino?

  3. Christy P. on June 9, 2005 at 7:02 pm

    Hmmm, sometimes I think that mankind would be better off if some mysteries were left unsolved. For every wonderful & beneficial discovery that is made, it seems that someone will inevitably come along and pervert it for their own purposes. This one could potentially have a whole host of nefarious uses. Yikes!

  4. A Quiet Russ-L Member on June 10, 2005 at 5:01 am

    I know this is off-topic, but I was wondering if your book tour is going to take you to the Washington, DC area this year??

    Thanks! Phil

  5. WDI on June 11, 2005 at 2:30 pm

    This research was reported in the 2 June issue of Nature magazine. In the same issue, Antonio Damasio has a nice review (Nature 435: 571-572). He provides some pretty readable background on oxytocin and its effects on both human and non-human animals, and concludes with what I think is an interesting look at some of the pro’s and potential con’s of the work. Here’s what he says:

    “The authors’ results open up possibilities for investigating conditions in which trust is either diminished, as in autism, or augmented. For example, patients with bilateral damage to the amygdala approach strangers with unusual ease, and fail to recognize untrustworthy individuals whom normal people would resolutely avoid. In this case, damage to the amygdala may prevent the detection of the potential threat evoked by certain stimuli. And children with Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, approach strangers fearlessly and indiscriminately. Might their high level of trust be due to excessive oxytocin release?

    Some may worry about the prospect that political operators will generously spray the crowd with oxytocin at rallies of their candidates. The scenario may be rather too close to reality for comfort, but those with such fears should note that current marketing techniques ‘e2’80’94 for political and other products ‘e2’80’94 may well exert their effects through the natural release of molecules such as oxytocin in response to well-crafted stimuli. Civic alarm at the prospect of such abuses should have started long before this study, and the authors cannot be blamed for raising it. Whatever the beneficial biomedical applications, or the abuses, may turn out to be, Kosfeld et al. have made a valuable contribution to our understanding of the role of neuromodulators in human behaviour that involves choice.”

    I think he makes good sense here: sure, we always face the spectacle of someone finding a way to abuse this work quite directly — but in a real sense, isn’t it likely that unscrupulous people been doing that all along, albeit unknowingly, by finding other triggers to oxytocin release?

    Of course, that doesn’t argue against the potential for a new take on Big Brother 🙂

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