A Test of Trust

By Michelle Flythe | September 1, 2005 | 0 comments

The results of two recent studies suggest that researchers may have identified a biological basis of trusting behavior. Researchers from the University of Zurich and Claremont Graduate University in California administered either oxytocin, a hormone involved in nurturing behavior and social attachment, or a placebo to study participants. These participants, all male college students, then played a game where they assumed the role of either a monetary investor or a trustee. The rules of the game dictated that the more money investors shared with their trustee, the more they could receive in return. But they were also taking the risk that the trustee would abuse their trust and give them little to no return on their investment.

Previous research has shown that humans don’t like to place this kind of trust in others, especially strangers. But in this new study, investors who received oxytocin before the interaction displayed more trusting behavior than investors who had received the placebo, transferring larger amounts of money to their trustees. What’s more, oxytocin did not affect the amount of money trustees gave back to investors, suggesting that the behavioral change caused by oxytocin was specific to trusting behavior, not kind or generous behavior in general.

But couldn’t oxytocin have affected another aspect of the investors’ behavior, perhaps their willingness to take risks? In fact, the researchers also created a variation on their game, where they replaced the trustee participant with a method of randomly determining how much return investors would receive. In this second game, when there was no human partner toward whom they could feel trust, investors who had received oxytocin did not transfer any more money than did members of the placebo group. Thus it seems that oxytocin had a particular effect on the investors’ feelings toward another human, not simply on their tolerance for risk.

The authors say that their findings could have far-reaching implications for the treatment of social phobias. Such conditions are often characterized by a persistent fear of social interaction and can result in severely impaired daily functioning, and even increased suicide risk. More than financial investors or trustees, perhaps it will be people with these conditions who benefit most from the new science of trust.

Tracker Pixel for Entry

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure


Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

blog comments powered by Disqus



Greater Good Events

The Science of Burnout: What Is It, Why It Happens, and How to Avoid It
International House at UC Berkeley
April 29, 2017
6 CE Hours

The Science of Burnout: What Is It, Why It Happens, and How to Avoid It

A day-long semiar with GGSC Science Director Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., celebrated compassion teacher Joan Halifax, burnout expert Christina Maslach, Ph.D., and UCLA psychiatrist Elizabeth Bromley, M.D., Ph.D.


Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!


Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.


Greater Good Resources


Book of the Week

How Pleasure Works By Paul Bloom Bloom explores a broad range of human pleasures from food to sex to religion to music. Bloom argues that human pleasure is not purely an instinctive, superficial, sensory reaction; it has a hidden depth and complexity.

Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement