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The Moral Molecule by Paul J. Zak

01/07/2012. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Moral Molecule in the USA - or Buy The Moral Molecule in the UK

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pub: Bantam Press. 235 page indexed small hardback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-593-06749-9.

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If you thought your generosity to others and they to you was purely you or them being nice, Paul Zak in his book, 'The Moral Molecule', discusses his research where it is the amount of the hormone oxytocin released into your body. Oxytocin is principally a mothering hormone but both sexes have it. He proved from blood tests that excitement like a wedding can drastically increase the release of oxytocin in everyone there and why everyone is so nice and trusting to each other than in other situations. It's a shame it would have been a bit impractical to try this out before and after a rescue mission or even a rock concert because I would have thought a similar euphoria would exist in those situations as well.

Zak's principle test, though, was with the Trust System, where if you received a portion of money from someone else then you would get this trebled should you give a portion of this back to the giver? He found that people were mostly generous so they would be both effectively be quids in. When I finished this book, I did wonder as to whether he went beyond one test of exchange to see if his test subjects continued to be generous with further exchanges or whether greed would finally take over as the levels of oxytocin dropped.

Looking further objectively at this, that despite the test was blind and that neither person knew who the other was, I did wonder when the test was done in successive years with students whether word would have gotten around that by being generous, both parties win. This doesn't devaluate the blood test itself, because it would be very difficult to control the release of the hormone in your body but it can be promoted purely by being generous which is a conscious decision. As Zak himself points out, people don't want to appear ungenerous, especially if they are part of a test but can they over-ride the feeling of generosity or not generate oxytocin at all?

When it comes to distress, empathy kicks in for most people who will come to the aid of the person in trouble, mostly because we sympathise with the other person's problem. Of course, there is a hormone pay-off in feeling happy that you did some good although I doubt if many people, outside of the emergency services, would be doing this on a regular basis so they get used to this high. It does indicate that you can feel associated to a game player even if you don't play and share their joy or loss when they are playing. I think this needs a lot more analysis, especially when a fan's loyalty stays with people who continually lose rather than switch their allegiance to a more successful player.

Interestingly, psychopaths don't generate much oxytocin at all so would be a good argument to dose such people as you would without anyone with a dangerous condition before they commit murder. There's also a firm argument that business people aren't particularly empathic neither and have low oxytocin levels which indicates something of the widespread hormone range levels across the community. Outside of deficiency, stress will also reduce your oxytocin levels although I do wonder if you have plenty of the hormone in the first place, then would it drop to sub-normal levels. Saying that, I wonder if oxytocin is being diverted because surviving a stress situation would be paramount before you can help someone else.

Too much of the male hormone testosterone by the way increases rivalry and reduces generosity because it blocks oxytocin. When you consider the rapid hormone changes in adolescence, there is an obvious connection to aggression than helpfulness.

One thing that did illustrate how to turn things around was Zak's example of BogotŠ in Colombia, where Mayor Antanas Mockus turned his society around by reducing crime by ridiculing it and raised the level of community spirit. Granted, Mockus was originally a philosophy professor and was applying what he knew but BogotŠ at the time couldn't have gotten much lower than it was. Zak raises a point about our current British prime minister, David Cameron, employing the 'we're all in this together' malarkey but fails to realise that he only gives lip service to it and demonstrates that he isn't being fair to everyone which is the whole point of lack of trust in him or the point that coming from a media promotions background just knows how to manipulate people. Although Zak touches on American society, I wish he'd done more analysis of his own country where money rules more than fairness to the poorer people in his society. One observation he makes about kids at school is that their interest in texting undermines their ability to tune into their teachers. Maybe the teachers should text them for attention instead?

Before you think that by dosing up on oxytocin will make you happy, Zak points out that it is a prescription drug and to avoid buying drugs containing it off the Net because they are probably fake drugs and unlikely to contain any.

Despite my criticisms, I found this a very interesting book and I suspect even Paul Zak himself would be the first to admit that his research is on-going and that he is still learning. The fact that our generosity is ruled by oxytocin will certainly make you think about your own levels, let alone the people about you. Whether people will try out his Trust Test, even in social gatherings, to see if it can spot those with low levels is debatable, mostly because if you're aware of the results then I would think it would be easier to fake a response, especially when you don't have a blood test to prove it right or wrong. Hopefully, Zak is considering coming up with a fresh test. In the meantime, read this book and learn about this vital hormone.

GF Willmetts

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This book has 74 votes in the sci-fi charts

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