Naughty or Nice? A Brain Chemical May Tell

The brain chemical oxytocin can influence how selfish or giving a person is. CREDIT: Aletia | Shutterstock
The brain chemical oxytocin can influence how selfish or giving a person is.
CREDIT: Aletia | Shutterstock

Chemicals in your body can influence how generous or selfish you are, and, in recent years, experiments have explored the role of one called oxytocin — which one researcher calls the “moral molecule.”

In an experiment known as the ultimatum game, one of two people is given a sum of money, say $100, and told he must decide how to split it with person No. 2. If person No. 2 is dissatisfied with the split, then she can reject it, but then the money vanishes, and neither person gets any.

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak and colleagues have performed many variations on this experiment. In one, they gave some participants a squirt of oxytocin to the nose beforehand, and found that the share of money they offered the other side increased by 80 percent. (It’s important to note that the increase occurred when person No. 1 had to consider person No. 2’s reaction to the offer.)

Zak’s work indicates oxytocin — once best known as a hormone released during birth and breast-feeding — also plays a fundamental role in promoting social behavior, he told an audience at the New York Academy of Sciences on Tuesday (Dec. 11). Oxytocin also acts as a neurotransmitter, or messenger between brain cells.

His presentation was one of a series on the science behind the seven deadly sins, in this case, greed.

“The seven deadly sins are still deadly, because they separate us from other people,” Zak said. “They are all about putting ‘me’ first and that is maladaptive for social creatures like us.’

Oxytocin, in particular, promotes empathy, and when the chemical is inhibited in someone, they become more prone to sinful, or selfish, behavior, he said.

But this system doesn’t work for everyone.

Zak illustrated this using the example of a young Canadian woman, Stephanie Castagnier, who was a contestant on real-estate mogul Donald Trump‘s reality TV show “The Apprentice.” Castagnier presented herself as “the goddess of gr

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