A study just came out today that adds some potential insights to my earlier posts about oxytocin. (See my earlier posts where I describe what oxytocin seems to be related to and how that may affect relationships.) Moïra Mikolajczak, James J. Gross, Anthony Lane,
Olivier Corneille, Philippe de Timary, and Olivier Luminet just published a paper in the journal Psychological Science where they tested if oxytocin beefs up both trust AND gullibility or just trust. This is another of those ingenious experiments where experimenters use a game theory, exchange scenario called “The Trust” game. (Sounds like a fun game for Saturday night at a party, right?). Two participants at a time (who could not see each other) would play the game, presumably online, meaning they would not see the other participant.
The experimenters manipulated two variables: people’s exposure to oxytocin (given nasally) and cues about reliability of trustworthiness of the person they were playing the game with. Imagine you are playing this Trust game. You are going to try to maximize what you can earn which will be based on how much you decide to trust the other person. (I’ll spare you further details on that part.) You might wonder how they manipulated trustworthiness. They described, for participants, the person they were playing with in terms that implied trustworthiness or not. These descriptions of high trustworthiness or low trustworthiness given randomly, meaning, the descriptions would affect the participant’s sense of who they were playing with, but the descriptions were not really true of who they were playing with. By the way, in such experiments where any kind deception is used, participants are told immediately afterwards about it as the experiment is explained to them.
You might wonder what they told people to make the person they were playing with seem to be trustworthy or not. Here is where I might quibble a bit with their strategy, but to be trustworthy, you were described as having a major like philosophy; but you’d be tipped in the direction of thinking the other person was untrustworthy by being told he or she was in marketing. (If I were a marketing major, I would take offense. Then I’d think carefully about how to give people a better impression.) Or, you might be told the other person was active in practicing to give first aid (trusty) or loved to play violent sports (not as trusty). Note: It’s not that the less trustworthy folks were described as scum or something vile. The experimenters were simply going for less versus more trustworthy in the seeds that were planted.
What did they find? Oxytocin produced increases in trust UNLESS participants were given cues that who they were playing with was not so trustworthy. That’s pretty cool. They showed that oxytocin is not a blanket producer of blind trust. If one gets cues that another person could be someone to be leery of, oxytocin will not completely override that.
Okay, think about that some. I’ll write more in the next post about implications for love and romance. Before I do, think about what you might tell someone you know who is looking for love based on this study and other things I’ve written about oxytocin and commitment.