By NICHOLAS WADE
Published: June 7, 2010
The glue that binds a human society together is trust. But people who trust others too much are likely to get taken for a ride. Both trust and distrust, it now seems, are influenced by hormones that can induce people to ratchet their feeling of trust up or down.
The trust side of the equation is mediated by a brain hormone known as oxytocin. A soft touch or caress will send a pulse of oxytocin into a person’s bloodstream. Swiss researchers found in 2005 that a squirt of oxytocin would make players in an investment game more willing to hand over their money to strangers.
It may seem strange that there is a hormonal influence in such a delicate calculation as to whether or not to trust someone. But perhaps trust is so important to a society’s survival that natural selection has generated a hormonal basis for it.
In any event, trust has a downside — one may hand over too much money to a Mr. Madoff who promises to generate steady returns in both up and down markets. There needs to be an antidote to oxytocin that makes a person keep those warm, fuzzy feelings suppressed in the appropriate circumstances.
Researchers at Utrecht University in Holland now report that they have identified this antidote: it is testosterone. They gave young women a dose of the hormone in the form of a drop of liquid placed under the tongue, then asked them to judge the trustworthiness of a series of men’s faces shown in photographs. The women were significantly less inclined to trust a face when given testosterone than when they had taken a placebo, the Dutch team reported last month in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.