Oxytocin: "the biological basis for the golden rule"


This idea has been kicking around for years, but does anybody actually believe that complex ethical thinking is turned on and off by a hormone or two?


Sure. Hormones and a few billion nerves. What else is there in the brain?


“Hormones” is a rather generic term – how many different hormones are there? I doubt that all of them are even known. And it is a lot more than just the nerves – it is the connections.

It is like saying that computers are just transistors and electricity – which implies that you can just throw a few billion of them in a jar, shake, and pour an i7. If you want it to run twice as fast, you can either pour in twice as many transistors or add twice as much electricity.


Sure… but @boundegar makes an important point - morality and ethical thinking are social constructed, not just reactions from our physiology. What is ethical or moral doesn’t exist outside of ourselves and our communities but is made in our interactions. As @Kevin_Harrelson points out, we are more than the sum of our parts.


Molly Crockett: Beware neuro-bunk

Nota: Ms. Crokett disagrees with Mr. Zak. But you already knew that.
Nota #2: It’s a TED talk.

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Nobody said complex thinking is triggered by a chemical. They’re saying the good feeling you get by acting ethically is triggered by a chemical.


Even among researchers who think Oxytocin is an important regulator of behavior don’t agree on what its effects are. There’s a fairly large body of research that suggests that it actually can have the opposite effect – increasing fear and anxiety (at least in mice). It isn’t always this wonderful thing.

I don’t know about this guy’s book, but the article sounds like a load of bull. If people are predisposed toward reciprocating kindness, then why are we, as a species, still utter shit? He mentions testosterone, stress, abuse, and mental illness (psychopathy) as factors, but those don’t even begin to account for the sheer misery of the human condition. To put it simply: we’ve burned witches in the past, and we’re still burning witches.

Also, I hate it when strangers hug me. Seriously, don’t do it. It’s a great way to make a terrible first impression.

Anyway, I look forward to the day the government gasses us to increase oxytocin levels, since it will bring us one step closer to the continuity of Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

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You jest, but honestly I believe this is the level of understanding of the physical world you will find in nearly all corporate boardrooms.

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I think most reasonable people would agree that Truth-with-a-capital-T is too big for any one book (and dare I say) bigger than all books we have printed to date.

This kind I armchair-criticality is kind of lazy. Is oxytocin an important hormone? Undoubtedly. So barring mandatory courses in neurobiology (which I am for in principle!), we will have to make do with pop-science books that shed a beam of light on singular and narrow subjects.

I agree, and that’s the part that’s not terribly new. Just as long as we don’t take it too far and become B.F. Skinner.

well, there’s cortisol.

Because we don’t get the good feeling until AFTER we do a good deed. You’re confusing the question of “why aren’t we motivated to do good” with “why does doing good FEEL good when we actually motivate ourselves to do it”. It’s the eternal struggle of delayed gratification - rather than running with our basest emotions (which we feel before acting) this is a case of getting a feeling only after we’ve acted. I think that pretty clearly explains why people are such shits more often than not.

^This. And the author’s seemingly self-imposed occupational moniker is giving me pause as to the level of trustworthiness such a title might imply.


Dunno about that, since similar reasoning could be used to disprove conditioning or addiction. From what I’ve (admittedly briefly) read today, it seems like oxytocin is far from the unequivocally sure thing this guy claims it to be. Moreover, it’s not doing good deeds that feels good, but believing that you’re doing good deeds. Not exactly the same.

I admit, the title “Dr. Love” is a bit…strange.

Actually, quite the opposite - it proves conditioning and addiction. Oxycontin is like Pavlovian response (conditioning), and it’s why morality is socially constructed vs. universal. As you point out, we have to believe that we’re doing good, which is a framework constructed via time and place (cultural). So we only think we’re doing good when we act within socially constructed norms of what “good” is, and therefore become conditioned only to doing “good” within particular boxes. Hence burning witches can be “good”, maybe, or else just a bloodlust thing that gives in to more primal and urgent motivations than feeling good about being good. But either can explain the shitty things people do. Thinking outside the cultural box and conditioning oneself to act “good” in ways that stand the test of time are things that Oxycontin alone won’t provide. Which is why the article can not be full of shit and still humanity very much is.

That was what I was implying. I don’t believe morality is relative, but I believe the perception of morality is. Burning witches was immoral back when witch hunts were all the rage, and it’s still immoral now that it’s considered atavistic. All that has changed is what is perceived as socially acceptable.

Basically, people will continue being horrible to each other, as long as they feel justified, so calling oxytocin a “moral molecule” is ridiculous (even if it did exactly what Zak says it does). Most reasonably sane people are able to convince themselves their actions are morally acceptable, no matter the actual effects.

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Everything you’ve said about Oxycontin might very well be true, however, the book author is talking about the hormone Oxytocin. I won’t defend anything the author has to say though, because as I indicated obtusely above, the occupational title he uses sets off many of my bullshit detectors. I’m finding it difficult to move into Take Seriously mode.

Ha, yeah, typo alert. Ooops.

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