Neuroeconomics: In Oxytocin We Trust
by John Cookson / November 11, 2010

The concept of trust is in many ways the connective tissue of society—governing everything from our personal relationships to our common use of currency. Most, if not all, of the decisions we make every day rely on one form or another of trust. But what if our capacity for faith is simply the result of brain chemistry? Economic researchers are uncovering the chemical triggers in our brains that spark feelings of trust—and using their findings to better understand how markets work. Paul Zak, a professor of economics at Claremont Graduate University, has spent the past six years pioneering the new field of neuroeconomics, which could potentially explain the neurological mechanisms that result in poverty and prosperity. So far, Zak’s research has focused on oxytocin, a neurochemical known to flood a mother’s central nervous system during labor—in part to establish attachment for the child. Long thought limited to birth, research by Zak and others is now revealing that this chemical circulates in small doses in everyone, and is critical to creating and sustaining trust among people. In a series of tests based on giving or keeping money, Zak found that when someone demonstrates that they trust you, your body releases faint traces of oxytocin, which creates a “fleeting signature of safety and care.” As well, when trust is shown to a person, their resulting higher levels of oxytocin make them more likely to show trust to the original person, creating an oxytocin feedback loop. In this way, “our brains motivate us to be trustworthy,” says Zak. “It’s a beautiful kind of system.”

Zak’s research has shown that low levels of oxytocin are released when people are given a 15-minute massage, when they make eye contact, when they watch a highly emotional film, and even when they tweet. As well, Zak recently took samples of a wedding party to see what patterns of oxytocin release would be triggered by the ceremony. Zak found the bride released the most oxytocin, then her mother. The groom came in further down the list. Zak says his research has found that people who release more oxytocin report greater satisfaction with life, better romantic relationships, more friendships, more sex, and greater trust. Neuroeconomics departs from neurology in its desire to map how these trust patterns among individuals ripple out to result in macro-level consequences. With such an aggregated map of how trust circulates or stalls in a society, neuroeconomics might describe the robustness of nations’ economic development as well as the intricacy of institutions that fill in the gaps where trust fails.

One issue that began Zak’s work in this new field was research in the late 1990s that found an unexplored connection between trust and national prosperity. Data showed that high trust exists in countries that are, by and large, rich or fast growing. Countries in which trust is high have effective governments, says Zak: “They have very tight social structures, people interact very nicely with each other, they don’t have a lot of divisions.” A 2007 study by the Pew Research Center found 45% of Americans said they trust each other—a large percentage compared to many other countries, which hover in the single percentage points. Linking the data to the discovery of how oxytocin-led trust cycles can harness or hurt economic transactions toward prosperity, Zak shows how trust becomes the “great summary measure of a society in which things are working well.” However, as he notes, lack of trust is also a measure of to what degree things are broken.

Trust isn’t universal or perfect, and for good reason. Whereas the expectation of trust can facilitate a broader range of economic engagement among strangers, misplaced trust is a recipe for developmental gridlock. Therefore, institutions develop to cover the gaps in trust. These institutions include the legal and corrections systems, which enforce agreements and allow economic transactions that contribute to overall prosperity. Without a baseline of transactional confidence, says Zak, the size of the market shrinks, decreasing prosperity as people prefer to deal primarily with small, trusted groups. This, says Zak, is why certain countries have remained mired in poverty.

National trust levels, especially around economic transactions, also offer a mean method of forecasting. China, for example, has markedly high levels of trust, yet the market-oriented way in which the nation is leaning will, according to Zak, build the economic-led trust around individuals. This should in turn loosen the centralized authority in favor of individual, trust-led market commerce. In another example, Zak says programs such as microfinance and micro-entrepreneurship are “a way to take economic power and bring it to the individuals even at the lowest levels.” This builds the necessary foundation of economic trust that drives development, and eventually prosperity.

More Resources
—Zak, P. “Personal and Impersonal Exchange, Trust and Growth.”
—Zak,P. “Introduction: Moral Markets – The Critical Role of Values in the Economy.”
—Penenberg, A. “Social Networking Affects Brains Like Falling in Love.” Fast Company.
Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

by Hagbard Celine (RAW)

Society derives from sex, from reproductive relationships. Mammalian pair bonds and pack bonds (imprinted emotions of affection and trust) held the first human bands and tribes together as working units. At the center, the hub, stood the orgasmic tenderness the shared love of the genital embrace in the mating act and out of this radiated the “sublimated” tenderness of parent-infant, brother-sister, uncles and aunts and grandparents, the whole “extended family” or hunting/food-gathering band. Society derives from sex, from mammalian pair bonds and pack bonds.

The conquering State, and the subsequent fission of society into separate classes of privileged and deprived, created poverty. Poverty as a human institution derives from conquest, from the establishment of government (the invading warrior band, remaining to rule that which they have conquered), and from the institution of “laws” to perpetuate the class division between Invader & Invaded.

The human, like any other primate, contains neurogenetic circuits ready to be imprinted by pair bonds and pack bonds. The evolutionary purpose of these bonds remains classically mammalian: they insure biosurvival and pack status. They also program most of the seed with the hetero-sexual-reproductive behaviors necessary for the survival of the pack, which in turn provides biosurvival security for future generations.

The rise of the conquering State, the feudal State, and eventually the modern capitalist State has progressively undermined and subverted the tribal pack bond (the “extended family”). In the most advanced capitalist nation, USA, little pack bonding remains. Hardly any US citizens will stop for hitchhikers, give to beggars on the street, or even trust their neighbors. Many don’t even know their neighbors. Normal pack bonding behaviors of trust, charity, affection, etc., still found in the feudal nations, have atrophied here. The celebrated “anomie,” “anxiety,” “alienation” etc., of capitalist society begins from this lack of normal pack bonding.

The circuits which normally imprint a pack bond still survive, ethologically speaking. (In psychological language, the same thought would be expressed by saying that the need for biosurvival security still survives.) This mammalian constant must be satisfied, and in an abstract society the satisfaction becomes abstract. Paper money becomes the biosurvival imprint in capitalist society.

William S. Burroughs has compared capitalism to heroin addiction, pointing out the terrible parallels: the junkie must have regular doses; the capitalist citizen must have a regular money fix. If junk is not available, the addict becomes a spasmodic bundle of anxieties; if money is not available, the capitalist citizen goes through similar withdrawal trauma. When junk becomes scarce junkies behave desperately, and will steal or even kill. When money becomes scarce, capitalist citizens will also rob or kill.

Opiate drugs, according to Dr. Timothy Leary, function as biosurvival circuit neurotransmitters. That is, they activate neural networks keyed to the mother-infant bond. (In the terms of preneurological Freudian psychology, the junkie in the arms of Mother Opium regresses to infantile bliss.) In a society without the normal mammalian pack bond, similar imprinting occurs on money, by conditioning learned associations onto the infantile reflexes. The capitalist citizen learns neurologically that money equals security and lack of money equals insecurity.

Infantile separation anxiety (the fear of losing the all-providing Mother) became generalized to tribal separation anxiety quite early in hominid evolution. The person thrown out of the tribe for deviant or antisocial behavior experienced real survival anxiety. (The tribe, in primitive conditions, has much greater survivability than the lone individual. Ostracism then usually meant death, just as ostracism from Mother can mean death to the infant.)

Since money has replaced the tribe in capitalist society, the majority of citizens have imprinted onto money the traditional mammalian emotions of the infant-mother and individual-pack survival bonds. This imprinting is maintained by conditioned associations created by real deprivation experience. Before the rise of welfarism, people did die of money withdrawal in capitalist society in large numbers; and it still happens occasionally, among the very ignorant, the very timid, the very old. (e.g., an elderly couple froze to death in Buffalo, a few years ago, when they were unable to pay their utility bill and the local monopoly shut off their heat, in January.)

The frequent European observation that Americans “are money-mad” merely signifies that capitalist abstraction, and decline of the tribe, has advanced further here than in European capitalist states. The American, deprived of money, lurches about like a frenzied lunatic. “Anxiety,” “anomie,” “alienation,” etc., increase exponentially, reinforced by real security deprivations. The poor in less abstracted societies share a pack bond and “love” each other (on a village level). The poor in America, lacking the pack bond, hooked only on money itself, hate each other. This explains the paradoxical observation of many commentators that poverty retains dignity and even some pride in traditional societies, but appears dishonorable and shameful here. Indeed, the American poor not only hate each other; often, perhaps usually, they hate themselves. The American, deprived of money, lurches about like a frenzied lunatic.

These facts of neuroeconomics have been so charged with pain and embarrassment that most Americans will not discuss them at all. The sexual prudery of the nineteenth century has become money prudery. People will talk, in the avant third of the population anyway, quite explicitly about the fetishistic aspects of their sex imprints, but equal frankness about our money needs freezes the conversation and may empty the room. Behind superficial pain and embarrassment lies mammalian terror: biosurvival anxiety.

The mobility of modern society escalates this money-anxiety syndrome. During the 1930s depression, for instance, many grocers and other “corner stores” allowed customers to run up quite large bills, over periods of months sometimes. This was based on the last tattered fragments of the traditional tribal bond and the fact that everybody still knew everybody in the neighborhoods of those days. Today, it would not happen. We live, as one novel said, in a “world full of strangers.”

In the opening chapter of The Confidence Man, Melville contrasts the “religious nut” who carries a sign saying “LOVE ONE ANOTHER” with the merchants whose signs say, “NO CREDIT.” The irony was meant to reflect on the uneasy mixture of Christianity and capitalism in nineteenth-century America – but Christianity, like Buddhism and the other posturban religions, appears to be largely an attempt to recreate the tribal bond on a mystical level within “civilized” (i.e., imperialist) times. Welfarism represents the State’s attempt to counterfeit such a bond (in a stingy and paranoid fashion, in the spirit of capitalist law). Totalitarianism appears as the eruption, in murderous fury, of the same endeavor to convert the State into a tribal nexus of mutual trust and biosurvival support.

The dawn of libertarian philosophy in America featured two tendencies which modern libertarians have neglected – unwisely – if the above analysis proves sound. I refer to the emphasis on voluntary association – retribalization on a higher level, through shared evolutionary goals – and on alternative currencies. The former of these ideas appears prominently in Warren, Greene, Spooner and Tucker, among others; the latter in all the above and in Dana, Ingalls, C. L. Schwartz, Joseph Labadie, Bilgrim, Levy, etc.

Voluntary associations or communes without alternative currencies quickly become reabsorbed into the capitalist cash nexus. Voluntary associations with alternative currencies openly declared get ground up in the courts and destroyed. Voluntary associations using covert or secret currencies may actually exist, to judge from hints or codes in some right-wing libertarian publications. No form of libertarianism or anarchism (including anarcho-capitalism and anarcho-communism) can successfully compete with welfarism or totalitarianism, under present conditions.

Current welfare practices emerged from 70 years of struggle between liberals and conservatives; the conservatives won most of the battles. The system functions to heighten the addiction syndrome. The recipient gets a small fix at the beginning of the month, nicely calculated to support one extremely frugal miser until about the 10th of the month. Through hard experience, he/she learns to make this last until the 15th, maybe even to the 20th. The rest of the month is experienced as acute biosurvival anxiety. This deprivation period, as any pusher or Skinnerian conditioner knows, maintains the whole cycle. On the first of the next month, another money fix is allowed, and the whole drama begins anew.

The welfare rolls steadily increase, since – even with the most bumbling inefficiency and redundancy – the tendency of industrialism remains, as Buckminster Fuller says, to do more with less and omni-ephemeralize. Each decade, fewer will have jobs and more will be on welfare. (Already, 0.5 per cent own 70 per cent of the wealth, leaving 99.5 per cent to compete violently for the remainder.) The end result could become a totally conditioned society, entirely abstract, motivated only by neurochemical money addiction. To measure our advance toward that condition, imagine vividly what you would do and feel if all your money and sources of money disappeared tomorrow. It is important to bear strongly in mind that we are still discussing standard mammalian behaviors. In recent research, chimpanzees have been trained to use money. The reports indicate that they developed normal “American” attitudes toward the mysteriously powerful tokens. Each decade, fewer will have jobs and more will be on welfare.

The Illuminati pyramid on the dollar bill, like the similar “magick” emblems of the Fleur de Lys, Swastika, Two-Headed Eagle, Stars, Suns, Moons, etc., with which other nations have seen fit to festoon their State currencies or documents, is intrinsic to the “spookiness” of the whole monopolization of mana or psychic energy by the State. Here are two pieces of green paper; one is money, the other is not. The difference is that the former was “blessed” by the wizards in the Treasury Building.

The capitalist worker lives with the same perpetual anxiety as the opiate addict. The source of biosurvival security, the neuro-chemistry of feeling safe, is hooked to an external power. The conditioned chain money equals security, no money equals terror, is reinforced continually by seeing others “fired” and fallen by the wayside. Psychologically, this state may be categorized chronic low-grade paranoia. Politically, the manifestation of this neurochemical imbalance is known as Fascism: the Archie Bunker/Adolph Schickelgruber/Richard Nixon mentality. As Leary says, “Fear and rage restrictions on freedom now dominate our social life… fear and restricting violence can become addictive kicks, reinforced by schizophrenic policymakers and an economic system which depends upon restricting freedom, and upon the production of fear and the inciting of violent behavior.”

In Desmond Morris’s perfect metaphor, the naked ape behaves exactly like a zoo animal: despair is the essence of the cage experience. In our case, the bars are intangible, imprinted game-rules: Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles.” We are literally being robbed blind. We have literally taken leave of our senses. The conditioned token, the symbol money, controls our mental well-being.

This appears to be what Norman O. Brown is groping to say in his occult-Freudian tomes about our “polymorphous perversity” (natural body rapture) being destroyed in the process of conditioning sublimated sex (group bonding) onto social games like money. The Resurrection of the Body that Brown foresees can only happen by means of neurosomatic mutation or, as Leary calls it, Hedonic engineering. Historically, the only groups that have managed to detach themselves effectively from the social game anxiety have been (1) absolutely secure aristocracies, free to explore the various “mental” and “physical” pleasures, and (2) communes of shared voluntary poverty, a form of retribalization by sheer determination.

Libertarians, like other idealists and malcontents of Left and Right, generally suffer a wounding sense of the ghastly chasm between their evolutionary goals and the present grim reality. This sense vastly complicates the resolution of their own money-anxiety syndrome, with the result that virtually all of them feel intense guilt about the ways they acquire the money necessary to survive in the domesticated-ape world around us. “He has sold out,” “She has sold out,” “I have sold out,” are accusations heard daily in every idealistic clique.

Any way of “making money” automatically opens one to guilt-inducing vibrations from one faction, while it paradoxically spares one from further guilt-inducing vibrations from another faction. Catch-22, the Double Bind, the Snafu Principle, etc., are merely extensions of the basic neuro-economic trap: You Can’t Live Without Money. As Joseph Labadie concluded, “Poverty doth make cowards of us all.”

There is, ultimately, a pleasure in enduring poverty. It is like the pleasure of surviving through grief and mourning and loss; the Hemingway pleasure of standing firm and continuing to fire at a charging lion; the saint’s pleasure in forgiving those who persecute her. It is not masochism but pride: I have been stronger than I thought I could be. “I have not wept nor cried aloud” This is the joy Nietzsche and Gurdjieff found, in ignoring their cruelly painful illnesses and writing only of the “awakened” state beyond emotions and attachments.

Right-wing paranoia about paper money (the various conspiracy theories about how the supply and withdrawal of money is manipulated) will always remain epidemic in capitalist society. Junkies have similar myths about the pushers. It is real food, real clothing, real shelter that are threatened when money is removed, even briefly, and it is real deprivation that occurs when money is removed for any length of time. The domesticated ape is trapped by a game of mental symbols, but the trap is deadly.

There is some kind of masochistic pleasure in continuing the analysis of a painful subject into every byway and intricacy of its labyrinthine torments. There is something of this beneath the “objectivity” of Marx, Veblen, Freud, Brooks Adams. “As bad as it is, we can at least look at it without screaming,” such writers seem to be assuring us, and themselves. “Only those who have drunk from the same cup know us,” said Solzhenitsyn. He was talking about prison, not poverty, but the two are alike in being traditional punishments for dissent. One takes pride in having borne them, if one survives at all. A popular opinion suggests that the counter-culture of the 1960s was beaten to death by cops’ clubs, drug busts, other direct violence. My impression is that it was simply starved out. The money was cut off, and after sufficient deprivation the survivors crawled aboard the first capitalist life raft that was passing.

Capitalism, Jack London wrote, has its own heaven (wealth) and its own hell (poverty). “And the hell is real enough,” he added, from bitter experience. Fatherhood is problematical at best, but becomes a hero’s task under capitalism. When the money supply is cut off, the father of a family in the USA today experiences multiplied anxiety: fear for self, fear for those who love and trust one. Only the captain of a sinking ship knows this vertigo, this wound. To survive terror is the essence of true Initiation. For they live happiest who have forgiven most, and, as Nietzsche said, anything that doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

{Originally published in “No Governor” newsletter #4.}

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