TRUSTING STRANGERS can be hard, such as in a group therapy exercise that has a person fall backward into another's arms. Luckily for the smooth running of society, a neurochemical called oxytocin primes people to trust others. Image: Mark Andersen-Getty Images (woman); Ryan McVay-Getty Images (man)
- The development of trust is essential for appropriate social interactions, so how do people decide whether to trust a new acquaintance or potential business partner?
- Using an experimental task called the trust game, researchers have found that oxytocin, a hormone and neurochemical, enhances an individual’s propensity to trust a stranger when that person exhibits non-threatening signals.
- Greater understanding of oxytocin’s functions and interactions with other key brain chemicals could lead to insights into many disorders marked by impaired social interactions, such as autism.
If you were asked to fall backward into the arms of a stranger, would you trust the other person to catch you? Such a situation, a common exercise in group therapy, is a bit extreme. But every day most people place some degree of trust in individuals they do not know. Unlike other mammals, we humans tend to spend a great deal of time around others who are unfamiliar. Those who live in cities, for instance, regularly navigate through a sea of strangers, deciding to avoid certain individuals but feeling secure that others will, say, give accurate directions to some destination or will, at the very least, refrain from attacking them.
In the past several years, researchers have begun to uncover how the human brain determines when to trust someone. And my colleagues and I have demonstrated that an ancient and simple molecule made in the brain—oxytocin (ox-ee-TOE-sin)—plays a major role in that process. The findings are suggesting new avenues for discovering the causes and treatments of disorders marked by dysfunctions in social interactions.
This article was originally published with the title The Neurobiology of Trust.