Charlotte Cramer
Mar 4 · 3 min read


Paul J. Zack (Professor and founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies) found, through a series of experiments, a hormone that can be manufactured and administered through a simple nasal spray which increases trust. WTF?!

This makes my brain hurt. How could this be used for good? How could this be used for evil? Is is being used for evil already without our knowledge? Are car salesmen putting it in that free coffee they offer you when you walk onto the lot? What about cult leaders? Should I put it in the sandwiches at my next business pitch?

Read on…

“Back in 2001 I derived a mathematical relationship between trust and economic performance. Though my paper on this research described the social, legal, and economic environments that cause differences in trust, I couldn’t answer the most basic question: Why do two people trust each other in the first place? Experiments around the world have shown that humans are naturally inclined to trust others — but don’t always. I hypothesized that there must be a neurologic signal that indicates when we should trust someone. So I started a long-term research program to see if that was true.

I knew that in rodents a brain chemical called oxytocin had been shown to signal that another animal was safe to approach. I wondered if that was the case in humans, too. No one had looked into it, so I decided to investigate. To measure trust and its reciprocation (trustworthiness) objectively, my team used a strategic decision task developed by researchers in the lab of Vernon Smith, a Nobel laureate in economics. In our experiment, a participant chooses an amount of money to send to a stranger via computer, knowing that the money will triple in amount and understanding that the recipient may or may not share the spoils. Therein lies the conflict: The recipient can either keep all the cash or be trustworthy and share it with the sender.

To measure oxytocin levels during the exchange, my colleagues and I developed a protocol to draw blood from people’s arms before and immediately after they made decisions to trust others (if they were senders) or to be trustworthy (if they were receivers). Because we didn’t want to influence their behavior, we didn’t tell participants what the study was about, even though there was no way they could consciously control how much oxytocin they produced. We found that the more money people received (denoting greater trust on the part of senders), the more oxytocin their brains produced. And the amount of oxytocin recipients produced predicted how trustworthy — that is, how likely to share the money — they would be.

Since the brain generates messaging chemicals all the time, it was possible we had simply observed random changes in oxytocin. To prove that it causes trust, we safely administered doses of synthetic oxytocin into living human brains (through a nasal spray). Comparing participants who received a real dose with those who received a placebo, we found that giving people 24 IU of synthetic oxytocin more than doubled the amount of money they sent to a stranger. Using a variety of psychological tests, we showed that those receiving oxytocin remained cognitively intact. We also found that they did not take excessive risks in a gambling task, so the increase in trust was not due to neural disinhibition. Oxytocin appeared to do just one thing — reduce the fear of trusting a stranger.”

I don’t know what to do with this information right now and I’m not even sure whether it’s a good idea to spread this knowledge but: how might we use artificial oxytocin to enable vulnerability?


Take care of your mental state in this mental world.

Charlotte Cramer

Written by


Take care of your mental state in this mental world.

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