Trust Boosts Oxytocin

Over the weekend, Atul Gawande tweeted out an interesting link to an article on the Wall Street Journal, The Trust Molecule by Paul J. Zak.

The article discusses research into the chemical oxytocin, which appears to underly our sense of morality. What does oxytocin have to do with schools? Well, apparently oxytocin levels can be enhanced by establishing trust. And trust is the one thing that always seems to be on short supply when it comes to the relationships between policymakers, politicians, parents, and teachers.

More strikingly, we found that you don’t need to shoot a chemical up someone’s nose, or have sex with them, or even give them a hug in order to create the surge in oxytocin that leads to more generous behavior. To trigger this “moral molecule,” all you have to do is give someone a sign of trust. 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. [Bold added]

I posit that establishing positive learning environments in schools, founded in trust and respect, will also boost oxytocin levels amongst staff and students, increasing their sense of well-being.

So the question is: what can we do to build trust in schools and between different stakeholders involved in education?


2 thoughts on “Trust Boosts Oxytocin

  1. I am a big fan of increasing virtuous circles and trusting people more, but not at all a fan of invoking oxytocin, or Paul J. Zak to do so. On one hand I want more emphasis on emotional side of education and the workplace, but we shouldn't use neuro-reductionism to do it. Trust is more than oxytocin, and oxytocin is not the moral molecule, that's just the catchy phrase that Zak uses to promote himself.


  2. Cedar, thanks for your perspective. Trust is certainly more than oxytocin. What I found interesting about this wasn't so much the singularity or definity of oxytocin, as much as the idea that there is some evidence that establishing relationships based on trust leads to more trustworthy behavior.

    I would definitely be interested to learn more about what lies behind the science of establishing trusting relationships — not the neuro-reductionist, media sensationalized version!


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