What if one chemical was responsible for your trust of other people, your morality, and your general happiness? This was the question that Dr. Paul Zak, Director of Claremont Graduate University’s (CGU) Center for Neuroeconomic Studies (CNS), set out to answer over ten years ago. After years of research, Zak, who has been at the forefront of the emerging field of neuroeconomics, says he has the solution: oxytocin, a mammalian hormone sometimes referred to as the “love hormone.”
Raised as an altar boy by his mother, Sister Mary Marastela, Zak says he has always had an interest in the causes of morality, which inspired his original investigation to find a biological explanation for moral behavior.
“I’ve been looking for about ten years for essentially the chemical basis for moral behaviors, because it’s moral behaviors that sustain us as social creatures,” he said.
While previous studies conducted at CNS were able to prove that heightened levels of oxytocin in the blood stream of test patients were correlated directly with generous and empathetic behavior, Zak’s recent focus has been on the effects of oxytocin-inhibiting chemicals in the body such as testosterone.
“If you think of oxytocin as this connecting molecule, the empathy molecule, testosterone is kind of its opposite,” he said.
In 2009, CNS released a study that concluded that elevated levels of testosterone in males were found to interfere with oxytocin and in turn cause males to act less generously and “behave antisocially,” according to a press release.
“Unlike oxytocin, testosterone made the men in our study more selfish and also more entitled,” Zak said.
In the past month, CNS has continued to research the effects of testosterone on generosity and economic decisions, with several students at the Claremont Colleges participating in the studies both as research assistants and test subjects. The most recent experiment called upon men age 18 and over to give a blood sample, apply either a placebo or AndroGel (a prescription gel-based testosterone supplement) to the shoulders and neck, and then complete a series of economics tasks. The tasks included participating in a simulated stock trading game as well as bartering anonymously with other participants. While the results of this study have not yet been published, the hypothesis was that participants given the testosterone would show a significant lack of generosity and a heightened sense of competitiveness during the stock trading simulation.
Sam Young PO ’15 participated in the experiment at CNS.
“It was pretty straightforward. I made about 70 [dollars] for less than three hours of work, which was great,” he said. “I’m not sure whether or not I was given the actual dose of testosterone, but I didn’t feel much different during the experiment either way.”
According to CNS Lab Assistant Kevin Guttenplan PO ’14, the center has conducted hundreds of experiments since its establishment but has maintained its commitment to researching in an ethical manner.
“A lot of people have heard about psychological studies that tell you they’re testing for one thing, but in reality they’re looking for something else,” Guttenplan said. “That’s not what we do. Every experiment is exactly as it seems. Dr. Zak has always made sure that CNS works as ethically as possible.”
Along with the research, Zak prescribes some unexpected remedies. In a talk he gave earlier this year at a TED conference, Zak discussed his findings concerning the effects of oxytocin, and he recommended a simple way to promote the release of oxytocin: giving hugs.
“My penchant for hugging other people has earned me the nickname, ‘Dr. Love,’” Zak said. “But here’s your prescription from Dr. Love: eight hugs a day. We have found that people who release more oxytocin are happier, and they’re happier because they have better relationships of all types.”