Neuroeconomics: In Oxytocin We Trust

Economic researchers are uncovering the chemical triggers in our brains that spark feelings of trust—and using their findings to better understand how markets work.

The concept of trust is in many ways the connective tissue of society—governing everything from our personal relationships to our common use of currency. Most, if not all, of the decisions we make every day rely on one form or another of trust. But what if our capacity for faith is simply the result of brain chemistry?

Economic researchers are uncovering the chemical triggers in our brains that spark feelings of trust—and using their findings to better understand how markets work. Paul Zak, a professor of economics at Claremont Graduate University, has spent the past six years pioneering the new field of neuroeconomics, which could potentially explain the neurological mechanisms that result in poverty and prosperity.

So far, Zak’s research has focused on oxytocin, a neurochemical known to flood a mother’s central nervous system during labor—in part to establish attachment for the child. Long thought limited to birth, research by Zak and others is now revealing that this chemical circulates in small doses in everyone, and is critical to creating and sustaining trust among people.

In a series of tests based on giving or keeping money, Zak found that when someone demonstrates that they trust you, your body releases faint traces of oxytocin, which creates a "fleeting signature of safety and care." As well, when trust is shown to a person, their resulting higher levels of oxytocin make them more likely to show trust to the original person, creating an oxytocin feedback loop. In this way, "our brains motivate us to be trustworthy," says Zak. "It’s a beautiful kind of system."

Zak's research has shown that low levels of oxytocin are released when people are given a 15-minute massage, when they make eye contact, when they watch a highly emotional film, and even when they tweet. As well, Zak recently took samples of a wedding party to see what patterns of oxytocin release would be triggered by the ceremony. Zak found the bride released the most oxytocin, then her mother. The groom came in further down the list. Zak says his research has found that people who release more oxytocin report greater satisfaction with life, better romantic relationships, more friendships, more sex, and greater trust.

Neuroeconomics departs from neurology in its desire to map how these trust patterns among individuals ripple out to result in macro-level consequences. With such an aggregated map of how trust circulates or stalls in a society, neuroeconomics might describe the robustness of nations' economic development as well as the intricacy of institutions that fill in the gaps where trust fails.

One issue that began Zak’s work in this new field was research in the late 1990s that found an unexplored connection between trust and national prosperity. Data showed that high trust exists in countries that are, by and large, rich or fast growing. Countries in which trust is high have effective governments, says Zak: "They have very tight social structures, people interact very nicely with each other, they don’t have a lot of divisions." A 2007 study by the Pew Research Center found 45% of Americans said they trust each other—a large percentage compared to many other countries, which hover in the single percentage points.

Linking the data to the discovery of how oxytocin-led trust cycles can harness or hurt economic transactions toward prosperity, Zak shows how trust becomes the "great summary measure of a society in which things are working well." However, as he notes, lack of trust is also a measure of to what degree things are broken.

Trust isn’t universal or perfect, and for good reason. Whereas the expectation of trust can facilitate a broader range of economic engagement among strangers, misplaced trust is a recipe for developmental gridlock. Therefore, institutions develop to cover the gaps in trust. These institutions include the legal and corrections systems, which enforce agreements and allow economic transactions that contribute to overall prosperity. Without a baseline of transactional confidence, says Zak, the size of the market shrinks, decreasing prosperity as people prefer to deal primarily with small, trusted groups. This, says Zak, is why certain countries have remained mired in poverty.

National trust levels, especially around economic transactions, also offer a mean method of forecasting. China, for example, has markedly high levels of trust, yet the market-oriented way in which the nation is leaning will, according to Zak, build the economic-led trust around individuals. This should in turn loosen the centralized authority in favor of individual, trust-led market commerce.

In another example, Zak says programs such as microfinance and micro-entrepreneurship are "a way to take economic power and bring it to the individuals even at the lowest levels." This builds the necessary foundation of economic trust that drives development, and eventually prosperity.

More Resources

—Zak, P. "Personal and Impersonal Exchange, Trust and Growth."

—Zak,P. "Introduction: Moral Markets - The Critical Role of Values in the Economy."

—Penenberg, A. "Social Networking Affects Brains Like Falling in Love." Fast Company.   

Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University. 

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.