Humans are the only creatures with fully developed moral sentiment. People, whether religious or non-religious, are equally obsessed with morality. In his quest to look for an earthly or biological basis for moral decisions, Paul Zak who is a pioneer in the field of neuroeconomics, has demonstrated that oxytocin is responsible for a variety of virtuous behaviors in humans such as empathy, generosity and trust.

Oxytocin is a shy molecule. It is only released on stimulus and with a baseline level close to zero and three and a half minutes of life span. It can be found both in the brain and in the blood system.

Zak and his colleagues recruited people to his lab and gave each of them $10. The subjects were instructed if they were willing to send some or all of the $10 to a paired total stranger, the amount would triple in the other person’s account. 90% of the people shipped money away. For the receivers, researchers asked them to send some of the money back to the donor. 95% did.

The consensus is that the transfer of money from the first person to the second is a measure of trust, and from the second back to the first a measure of trustworthiness. It turned out the more money the second person got, the more oxytocin was detected in his blood and the more money he’d give back. The possible impact of the other nine molecules that interact with oxytocin was eliminated. But does oxytocin cause trustworthiness?

To answer the question, Zak went on to directly manipulate the oxytocin level in the brain with the help of the nasal inhaler. He gave the subjects either an infusion of oxytocin or placebo. Of the group that received a puff of oxytocin, the number that sent all their money to strangers doubled (first to second). In general when oxytocin is raised, people are more willing to open their wallet and share money with total strangers. Studies demonstrate that oxytocin increases generosity by 80% and donation to charity by 50%. The evidence points to oxytocin as the biology of trust and trustworthiness.

In another experiment, Zak showed people a video of a father and his four-year-old son who had terminal cancer. He asked them to rate their feelings after the video. The change of oxytocin levels before and after watching the clip predicts feelings of empathy. Empathy makes us connect to other people and go out of way to help those in need. Empathy makes us moral. And oxytocin increases one’s capacity for empathy.

5% of the population don’t release oxytocin upon stimulus. These people typically share many of the attributes of psychopaths. Other factors that inhibit the release of oxytocin are mal-nurturing and high stress. It was found that many sexually abused women’s brains didn’t release oxytocin when stimulated.

Nursing moms and both male and female during sex produce a surge of oxytocin. However there are other ways to raise oxytocin, such as massage, dancing and praying. Connecting with other people, whether face to face or through social media, causes solid double-digit increase of oxytocin. Zak suggested that hugging is the easiest way to raise oxytocin in your brain. People with more oxytocin have better relationship of all types and are generally happier.

From his research findings, Zak suggests that morality isn’t from top down but from bottom up. He believes that he has found the molecule behind morality!