Does Oxytocin Put You in a Giving Mood?

September 22, 2010
Shirley M. Mueller, M.D.

Oxytocin is the chemical that enhances trust when released -- and it can boost warm and fuzzy feelings, too. Now, one study suggests that charitable organizations may convince donors to give more by exposing them to oxytocin.

There’s Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and now Dr. Love: He is Paul Zak, a professor at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. (At least, that’s what his students call him.) Zak is the research master of oxytocin, the chemical that enhances trust when released -- it can boost warm and fuzzy feelings, too.

The association between oxytocin and positive emotion may not only explain, in part, why people with friends live longer. Zak has applied this concept to charitable giving and other concepts in his research and found that empathetic individuals tend to donate more. This begs the question: Can oxytocin help charitable organizations entice donors to give more?

This is how one of Zak’s experiment works: Study participant number one receives a certain amount of money electronically, and is asked to give part of it to a second individual at another computer. The receiving person then decides whether or not to accept the offer. If the offer is accepted, however, the receiving individual gets the money and the offering individual keeps what’s left. If the offer is rejected, neither individual gets anything. This is known as the “ultimatum game.”

The study, “Empathy Toward Strangers Triggers Oxytocin Release and Subsequent Generosity,” was published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Zak’s co-author is Jorge A. Barraza of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont.

What’s interesting about this experiment is that oxytocin was found to alter the results. If participant one watched a video that induced oxytocin release by engendering empathy, that person was found to be more charitable. The authors concluded, “Our findings provide the first evidence that oxytocin is a physiologic signature for empathy and that empathy mediates generosity.”

In another preliminary experiment, the subjects inhaled placebo or oxytocin, and then waited an hour before viewing public service announcement videos. After each video, the participants were asked a question about the message. If answered correctly, the subjects were paid for their time. Participants were then asked if they would like to give a part of the remuneration to the organization running the announcement. So far, results indicate that nearly half of the subjects infused with oxytocin, or 48 percent, gave more to the PSA groups than those who inhaled the placebo.

Through his work, Zak -- or Dr. Love -- made a significant contribution to the scientific understanding of trust and giving. Bottom line: It has a lot to do with chemistry.