Trust in Bottles

 What kind of investor are you - the happy-go-lucky, trusting type, or the guarded, overly suspicious kind? Your answer may not have to do as much with your upbringing or personal investment philosophy than with your chemical makeup.

Swiss researchers from the University of Zurich have recently found the substance of gullibility: Oxytocin, a hormone that is known to induce labor in pregnant women, that makes cows give more milk, and whose levels peak during orgasm. In fact, sex therapists often warn their clients not to hop into bed too quickly with a new flame because the generated oxytocin can render them blind to their lover's potential character flaws.

In the study, 200 male university students were asked to administer a oxytocin-containing nasal spray (half of the group received a placebo). Afterwards, the group was divided into "investors" and "trustees" and the former were being handed 12 "monetary units" to invest.

"Investors were given the option of placing none, one-third, two-thirds or all of their money with the trustee, who promised to share whatever returns resulted," the Canadian Globe and Mail described the test. "Nearly half (45 per cent) of the oxytocin group forked over all of their money, compared with only one-fifth (21 per cent) of the placebo group."

The trustees' trustworthiness, however, was not affected by the oxytocin. After the "investments" were tripled and the trustees given free reign to distribute gains as they saw fit, cheating the investors out of their fair share occurred as often in the oxytocin as in the placebo group.

To make sure it was really trust and not merely a willingness to take higher risks that was influenced by the hormone, the scientists removed the human element and let the investors make their speculations per computer. Here, both the oxytocin and the placebo group fared equally well.

As funny as it sounds, these results could open up a possibility for chilling Orwellian scenarios, say prominent experts like Dr. Michael Kosfeld, leader of the research team. While oxytocin may have a positive impact on certain mental and social disorders, it could also "be misused to induce trusting behaviors that selfish actors subsequently exploit."

For example, said University of Iowa neurologist Antonio Damasio in Nature, "some may worry about the prospect that political operators will generously spray the crowd with oxytocin at rallies of their candidates.

"The scenario may be rather too close to reality for comfort, but those with such fear should note that current marketing techniques... may well exert their effects through the natural release of molecules such as oxytocin in response to well-crafted stimuli."

So the next time you suddenly feel complete faith in someone you don't know very well, look out for the mini-spray bottle in their hands.

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Posted 09-27-2005 2:19 PM by Doug Casey