Is Oxytocin The "Morality Molecule"

That is Paul Zak’s theory. The video is fascinating:

Now I just need to find 8 people to hug me everyday.

(via Philosopher’s Haze, who you can read for a summary if you cannot watch the video for some reason).

Patricia Churchland’s book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality explores the role of Oxycotin in morality in some depth too.

And, on the flip side of all of this, for a brief overview of the ways the brain, region by region, can malfunction morally, check out Anatomy Of A Psychopath : The Neurobiological Basis Of Evil.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • flynn

    I’m uncomfortable with his touch –> oxytocin –> trustworthiness –> economic prosperity link. If I’m understanding him right, pleasant physical contact is the primary stimulus for oxytocin production. Given the stated connection between trustworthiness and prosperity, wouldn’t we expect that the most high-trustworthiness/high-prosperity cultures would also be the most huggy? (I know we can’t really reason backward, but it kind of seems like that’s what he’s doing so I’m trying to follow that line.) But I think the research has shown otherwise. If I remember correctly, Japan is pretty low on hugs but high on civil culture, the US is less standoffish but not nearly as huggy as many of the poorer countries.

    He can back up the idea that it makes us briefly nicer and generally happier, but trying to link that to poverty while glossing over all of the other reasons for poverty seems to be missing the point, which is to connect us with other people, not to give us one more reason they are responsible for their own poverty. Not enough dancing and sex, eh. At least it’s novel.

  • Aliasalpha

    I’m completely screwed, I don’t know 8 people within hugging range

    I do think “The Morality Molecule” sounds like a story about a mad scientist trying to turn everyone evil

  • Sheila Crosby


    Thought: oxytocin makes you moral. Hugs increase oxytocin and stress decreases it. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” parenting (especially whack-them-with-a-plumbing-rod parenting) is going to create very stressed children, who will presumably grow up less empathic and less moral.

    Constantly threatening them with a sizzling hot hell will also tend to reduce their oxytocin.

    Hug your kids!

  • Dunc

    Have you seen James Fallon: Confessions of a Pro-Social Psychopath? If not, you’re sure to find it interesting – it turns out that the brain malfunctions which can result in what we normally consider psychopathy can also result in very different outcomes depending on the developmental environment.

  • DR

    He’s a crank and a charlatan. This talk was full of woo in scientific disguise. Oxytocin may have some role in everything he says, but it’s certainly NOT the “morality molecule”. Oxytocin seems to have a role in empathetic response, but to claim from that that it’s directly linked with moral judgements is idiotic. I’m an aspie (Asperger’s), which means that I have difficulty with empathy. But that does not mean I’m immoral, or for that matter that I have a problem with *sympathy*. All it means is that I don’t have as strong an intuition about what people who are standing in front of me are feeling at that very moment. But I’m certainly capable of figuring it out, and of responding appropriately once I do.

    In fact, people with Asperger’s are commonly MORE moral, and have a stronger sense of fair-play than their neurotypical counterparts. We tend to value well-regulated systems, and to feel strong aversion to anything which breaks those regulations. So our sense of duty and obligation to the moral standards in our society are in fact stronger than that of most.

    So yeah, Zak’s an idiot.

    • brianbridson

      What I took away from this, more than anything else, was that oxytocin very likely plays a role in how we are able to relate to and interact with other people, which can definitely enhance ethical decision making.

      In the search for what makes us moral or immoral, ethical or unethical (whichever you prefer), I think that this is another important piece of information to consider within our overall framework.

    • DR

      The problem is that Paul Zak is trying to make oxytocin into a miracle molecule that is singlehandedly responsible for morality. And that is quackery:

    • Camels With Hammers

      No, he’s not. He is explicitly saying that trust correlates highly with moral success so the fastest path to achieving that is to unlock the mechanisms of trust. Calling this “The Moral Molecule” is just marketing. Granted, it’s almost as shameless a marketing ploy and rife with potential to mislead people as Dawkins’s “Selfish Gene” language, but, as with Dawkins, taken within context the idea referred to is more modestly constrained.

  • Hazuki

    Fascinating stuff. I know for absolute certain my oxytocin is very low, and has been for a long time. And yet I’m also ridiculously obsessive over morality and have been studying it in depth for years, perhaps even my entire life in some ways.

    Do you suppose there’s a sort of tradeoff here? One can force oneself (as expense of other systems and even sanity) to act as if they are getting enough of this while not? Sort of like an inverse version of the “prosocial psychopath” up there: someone who is not a psychopath, who is not being given what she needs to be prosocial, and does it anyway?