The Hormones of Governmental Trust?

Oxytocin configuration

There was an interesting segment on NPR with Paul Zak (neuroscientist at Claremont)  and Margaret Levi (political scientist at U. Washington).

I’ve written earlier about the role of oxytocin in trust of strangers, but Zak has recently done some research that he believes explains how  oxytocin produces higher trust in strangers which then produces higher trust in government.  A “two-step” process.

Margaret Levi said Zak’s finding is consistent with Robert Putnam’s bottom-up hypothesis of trust that he highlighted in Bowling Alone.

“Putnam argues that the way in which trust in government is generated is basically bottom up. It’s from the relationships that we form with others through various kinds of neighborhood and local organizations – soccer clubs, choir groups. And we come to have confidence and trust in each other. And that trust in people leads to a trust in the institutions of government and the institutions of the economy.”

Both Levi and Putnam recognize that if the government in turn is dishonest, trust in government evaporates.

Zak notes in his controversial work that the connection between lower trust in government and harder economic times may be that economic recessions are stressful and stress is a toxin for oxytocin.

The piece also is interesting in describing a girl (“Isabelle”) with Williams syndrome where due to a hormonal imbalance and an excess of oxytocin, she trusts everyone, in a world where only some can be trusted.  Her mom is incapable of teaching her to be less trusting since she is fighting Isabelle’s biology.

When The ‘Trust Hormone’ Is Out Of Balance” (4/22/10, NPR)

2 responses to “The Hormones of Governmental Trust?

  1. Dear Tom, it’s very interesting, thank you.
    I’ve reported your post in the Social Capital Gateway Facebook fanpage:

  2. Interesting yes, but not entirely persuasive either.

    Eric Uslaner’s work would suggest that social trust is more a function of family beliefs handed down as ethical behavior, rather than of the tactical experiences we collect later in life (soccer clubs, choir groups). It also has to do, he would say, with two fundamental beliefs, in particular: do I feel feel the future is going to be better or worse, and do I feel I have some control over my own destiny. Those who answer “better”and “yes” are more inclined to trust. Those who are suspicious, paranoid and un-trusting typically believe the world is a dangerous place and people are out to get them.

    Is that a function of oxytocin? Or of belief systems inculcated with mother’s milk? I go for the belief system explanation.

    I think that neuro-everything is a little too full of itself these days; maybe it’s youthful exuberance to be tempered with time, but chemicals in the brain don’t necessarily increase explanatory power–and even when they do, one’s got to get them right.

    I don’t yet see this as one of those cases where it’s working.

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