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This week, David Kanigan turned me on to an article in the Wall Street Journal called ‘The Trust Molecule,’ exploring Paul J. Zak’s research on oxytocin.

For those of you who haven’t heard of oxytocin, it’s sometimes called the “cuddle chemical,” and it is released in our brains while having sex, giving birth, breastfeeding, and offering or receiving touch like hugs or massage. It turns out that it also rises when participating in – or even just observing – a ritual that bonds people you care about. That’s right: Zak’s studies showed that even being a guest at a wedding can raise your oxytocin levels, as the brain responds in a way to further bind you to people that mean something to you. Group activities like singing, dancing and praying also release the molecule.

The focus of the article, though, is the way oxytocin has now been shown to encourage moral behavior: instilling trust in someone, for example, tends to make that someone more trustworthy:

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…

If you detect the makings of an endless loop that can feed back onto itself, creating what might be called a virtuous circle — and ultimately a more virtuous society — you are getting the idea.

It’s an exciting find, and reinforces what a lot of recent research on altruism has shown: that we are essentially wired for empathy, and that kindness and generosity are built into us as evolutionary advantages. In a sentence that struck me as particularly Rubenfeld-y, Zak notes, “The Golden Rule is a lesson that the body already knows, and when we get it right, we feel the rewards immediately.”

The power of touch is key here as well, and if Zak is correct, even the promise of touch can change the nature of an interaction:

A few years ago, I began warning visitors to my lab that before they left, I was going to give them a hug. This scares some people, but I’ve found that my slightly eccentric announcement changes the depth of the conversation, making it more intimate, more engaging and more valuable to us both. I suspect that by forecasting a hug, I’m also signaling how much I trust the person, so I’m inducing a release of oxytocin in their brains. Those people, in turn, will connect better to others and treat them more generously. Nothing grander is required for a virtuous circle to begin.

What might happen if today, you deliberately chose to go out into the world with a more open heart – even if it was just to smile at the checkout person at the grocery store, or give some change to the homeless guy in front of the CVS? Or touched your wife when she got home from work? It may sound corny, but it may turn out that these small gestures are what change the world.

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