The Biological Origins of Trust

Through the fields of neurology, biology, endocrinology (the study of hormones), and even genetics, we’re finding increasing evidence for a natural origin to human behavior and thought: certain developments in one’s genes, hormones, brain structures, neural network, and other physiological factors are found to alter or otherwise effect how we are and what we do.

This has vast implications about the way we treat criminals – who may have deterministic factors behind their criminality – or how we behave with one another: if someone can’t help but act a certain way, perhaps we need to approach them in a more forgiving and understanding manner, rather than place the blame on their lack of will. If this biological determinism were to gain widespread acceptance over several generations, it would completely alter every facet of society: economics, politics, personal relationships, law, and so on.

For this post, however, I’ll limit this broad and complex topic to one element: oxytocin and its relationship to trust. Oxytocin is a hormone found only in mammals that is increasingly being found to play a vast role in human behavior, including empathy, pair bonding, maternal love, and – of course – trust. It is for these reasons that it’s often known as the “love hormone” or the “moral molecule,” and why many scientists believe that morality does indeed have a physical origin.

The video below is from a TED Talks conference that expands on this topic. The speaker, Paul Zak, is noted for his part in exploring the significance of oxytocin; at the same time, however, there have been some questions raised about the accuracy of methodology. Still, he makes some pretty interesting points, and at the very least he’s raising more interest into this young but promising field of study.

As the video notes, while it may seem grim to imagine our morality as being contingent on external factors somewhat beyond our control, there is a lot to be hopeful about: it appears to suggest that there is actually an inborn capacity to be moral and ethical. Despite the dim view most of us have of human nature – rapacious, greedy, self-interested, dishonest – our biology displays an equal capability for being loving and altruistic, even to strangers.

Human nature is a very complex thing, derived from both nature and nurture. There is a lot of gray when it comes to discerning the how and why of human behavior and morality. But the more we’re learning about this exciting development, the sooner we can begin to adjust our social and organizational paradigms to better suit one another.