Small Wonders: Morality just a matter of chemistry?

February 03, 2012|By Patrick Caneday

Good and Evil.

Nurture versus Nature.

Survival of the nicest or survival of the fittest.

Morality: our conformity to the rules of right conduct and virtue. It’s long been territory only for philosophers, theologians and newspaper columnists looking for a story. Its vagaries, its subjective and speculative nature make it a moving target; impossible to measure for those who require practical evidence.

Does morality — a trait present only in humans — come from a spiritual creator? Or from learned and developed behavior naturally selected over the millennia? Either way, isolating hard evidence of its source has proven to be a rabbit hole.


Historically, humans have shown themselves to be horrifically cruel and overwhelmingly benevolent; staunchly trustworthy and insidiously corrupt. So what is it that causes a person to respond with generosity over selfishness, empathy over apathy?

According to one researcher, the answer is “The Moral Molecule.”

Paul Zak, professor of Economics at Claremont Graduate University and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, has researched the “chemistry of morality” over the last 10 years. He believes that oxytocin, a hormone found only in humans, is at the root of our moral judgment.

In his studies, he found that test participants who performed selfless acts experienced a surge of oxytocin in their bloodstream. Those who received the act of kindness likewise produced increased oxytocin levels and were even more likely to respond generously.

“Pay it forward” proven in the laboratory.

In control groups where half were given a placebo and half oxytocin, the oxytocin groups showed more than double the positive behavior. Changes in a person’s oxytocin level actually predicted their feelings of empathy. And it is empathy that connects us to others, causing us to help and care about them. In other words, oxytocin makes us moral.

The studies also showed that subjects who were abused or improperly nurtured in their early years often had extremely low levels of oxytocin production, while those with stable upbringings had much higher levels, and more readily produced the hormone.

The inability to secrete oxytocin was linked to those who exhibit narcissistic and even sociopathic behavior. High-stress environments have been shown to inhibit the release of oxytocin, as has the presence of large amounts of testosterone.

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