Monday, 30 June 2008


Yet another interesting article in Scientific American has made me think. The article talks about the neurobiology of trust, that is - what makes us trust others, even when we don't know much about them? While the article deals mostly with the mechanics of trust, I find it's the implications of the way trust works with us humans that are the most interesting. To summarize the feelings I'm about to express in the rest of this post, the implications of the article exhibit the triumph of science as an approach that delivers results even if those results are based on findings that are hard to believe and are far from being intuitive.

The article starts by stating an observation that seems to have been known to science for quite a while now. Apparently, a certain hormone manufactured in the brain has been known to make us trust our fellow humans more than we do without the hormone. Chemicals, it seems, can take over the steering wheel and lead us to places where rational wouldn't naturally take us. And it's good that it does so, because us humans thrive by being social and trusting one another.
The theory is that this hormone first appeared many a many millions of years ago in fish. The female fish who had this hormone was less afraid of fellow male fish, and despite some of these trusting female fish being eaten enough of them left more descendants behind for the hormone to prosper. Most of us now feel the effect of said hormone during sexual climaxes, when our bodies are so flooded with the hormone thus earning it the nickname "the cuddle hormone". Cuddles don't last long, though: within three minutes the hormone levels in the blood are back to normal. The reason for trust is no longer there.

The scientists writing the article continue to report an experiment they have made. In the experiment, they took a large number of people, gave them $20 each, and divided them in two. Each member of group A was to give a member of group B some of their $20, as much as they chose; their B partner would receive double the amount donated to him/her by A. In return, B would then be able to give back to A as much as he/she would like without any chance for reciprocity.
If A and B knew one another and trusted one another, the best option for them as a group would be for A to give all of the money to B and then for B to return half of his/her share. However, A never met or knew B in the experiment, which caused selfishness and trust to play a role.
The most notable observation from the experiment was that both A's and B's gave one another more money when they took a deep breath of the cuddle hormone spray. The chemical, it seems, made them trust one another more.
That's not it. The experiment seems to have indicated that trust breeds trust: When the A's trusted the B's with more money, the B's repaid them with more money. Sure, they repaid them with even more when they were given the hormone, but even without it they still returned more when they were given with more.
Thinking about the implications here can drive you crazy. At the national level, for example, you can clearly see how living in a country where people trust one another will make you feel better than living in a country where people don't. Indeed, surveys indicate that trust is closely affiliated to affluence, since trust means that one can invest and leverage by investing rather than live day by day.
The article reports the results of surveys looking at levels of national trust. As expected, Scandinavian countries are at the top of the heap; if only they weren't as cold and if only they spoke English! Australia came in at the next tier of countries, the USA followed in the next one, then came the UK tier (I was surprised to see the UK significantly below the USA), and the following tier contained Israel. The bottom of the heap contained mostly developing countries, with Brazil at the very bottom. There were exceptions, but still you could see that the trusting countries are also the richer ones where the riches are equally spread.
Thing is, if trust breeds trust then mistrust breeds more mistrust. Put it in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict and you can see how things could end up like: none of the sides trusts the other to begin with, and both sides deteriorate into distrusting one another more and more with not much of a hope to settle things peacefully. Conflict, it would seem, would come only naturally.
At this point I will repeat my proposed solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. For years now I have ventured that the best recipe for solving the conflict would be to send the leaders of both sides for a long weekend in Amsterdam; once there even people as foolish as them should be able to see what really matters in life, after which there will be no more stupid wars about supposedly holy lands where some mythical dudes have had a pee once upon a time.

When it comes to mistrust, the sexes are not equal. Just like real life...
Women from group B who were given less money than expected from their matching A's responded in a tit-for-tar manner and returned similar amounts. However, men from group B who were mistrusted went berserk and usually returning nothing at all. Blood tests on those male subjects revealed that when they were mistrusted, this highly potent variety of testosterone was flooding their blood. It turns out this is the exact hormone that drives teenage boys into puberty, causes them to grow pubic hair and look for physical contact.
It's just great to see what's in store for us in parents in less than 15 years, isn't it? How can a parent stand any chance facing a teenage son who, for no particular reason, acts as if he is totally mistrusted?
Now think about the effects of mistrust on our world of politics, which is almost always ruled by men. Wouldn't we be much better off if instead of hot headed men we had calculated women making the big time decisions? I wonder how many conflicts could have been prevented if that was indeed the case. We humans sure know how to make the wrong choices.

As I already said, there is a lot to think about from this article. The main point, however, is the power of science in revealing to us the world that we are living in. On one hand, we can easily abuse this knowledge: Soon enough someone will know how to spray us with the trust hormone or how to stick it in our foods, and they will be closely followed by some politician who will have a really easy time making us feel good and getting himself reelected. On the other hand, we can take this knowledge and use it to raise our awareness to the way we act and the way we feel, so that we can make the right decisions and implement the right policies to improve trust and reduce conflict.
You can clearly see why myths such as religion take hold in us humans. In a complex world such as the one exposed by the cuddle hormone it would be dead easy to resign ourselves to an assumption that everything is delivered by some great bearded guy up in the sky. Science, however, can expose us to the realities of this world, be they nice or not that nice, be they intuitive or weird. The key difference, though, is that one way leads us to a brick wall while the other way is not only more fascinating, it also delivers results.


Moshe Reuveni said...

I was thinking about this again last night while having a shower, and the matter of how trust breeds more trust and mistrust breeds mistrust served to illuminate the importance of the apology recently issued to aboriginals by the Australian government.
Many people said at the time that this apology is unjustified because those who wronged the aboriginals just followed their time's zeitgeist, and besides - why should we apologize for something we didn't do?
While they are right, one can also clearly see how such an apology serves to enhance the trust that is very much lost between aboriginals and those that came here much later. For that alone, the apology was very much worthwhile.

Uri said...

I don’t really understand the experiment.
If I were A, the best I would hope for is $20 (hard to imagine someone getting 40 and giving over half of it back). Well, I can get that very 20 with no risk at all by not giving anything to B.
I’d probably try to equalize whichever side I was on (i.e., as A, give $7, and as B, give back as little as possible to make both side get the same).

Was this just a one-shot experiment?

On a side note, guess who I’m trying to imitate with the following story:

“Last night, it was very hot and very humid. I had pizza for dinner. What do these facts prove conclusively? That there is no god and that everyone who claims there is, is either ignorant (by which I really mean stupid) or a liar. Possible both. Oh, and the large companies are willing to kill us all for a buck”

Moshe Reuveni said...

I don't think you can conclusively prove there is not god. Not even with pizza.

As for the experiment, I think its point was to provide a tool for measuring the link between people's trust and the amount of the hormone in their blood; the technicalities of it weren't supposed to matter that much.
The experiment was designed so that A can have something to hope for through trust out of B, but B didn't have any reason to give anything to A other than repayment of that trust. If you were to ask me how I would behave, I would say that I would give half my money away because it's easy come easy go so let us all be equally happy (and because it's only $20). If it was $1,000,000 then I would be much more careful. Then again, I'm speaking from the comfort of my chair, and you've already proved I'm a stupid liar.

Moshe Reuveni said...

To further address your pizza analogy:
The point I was trying to make is that science is now starting to provide us with explanations as to why we trust one another. Trust is a very complicated affair; it’s quite irrational for a start, as you yourself point out when you say you won’t give much of your money away, yet you climb a bus you’re not driving because you trust a bus driver with your life.
Science is beginning to demonstrate the evolutionary roots of trust. What does religion do? How does religion explain trust? I guess explanations would vary significantly depending on which religion you go and consult with. Regardless, what evidence do any of the religions have in favour of its theories?

For the record (I thought of mentioning it in a dedicated post; I still might do it if I get the time): we’ve ordered Dominos Pizza a couple of weeks ago and it was just dreadful!

Uri said...

giving away half your money (as A) makes no sense. For an even split, you should give away a third.

Was it dreadful because you're local branch sucks (or had a bad say)? Or have you grown too accustomed to quality healthy food?

If it's the latter, I'm not realy sure what we'll give you when you visit.

Moshe Reuveni said...

You're right about the splitting. I didn't think of it rationally, and I don't think you should give away anything if you think of it rationally unless B is your wife or something.
As for the reason why the pizza sucked, I prefer to keep my post topic alive and defer an answer. Do not expect anything enlightening, but I can tell you it's neither of the two reasons you have suggested.