Better Giving Through Chemistry: Oxytocin Drives Generosity


There’s more proof that the hormone oxytocin is an important factor in our social behavior. Previously, the brain chemical was shown to be associated with trust (see Building Trust: Chemical Neuromarketing). Now, researcher Paul Zak, a professor of economics and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, has shown that subjects who inhaled oxytocin gave away 80% more money than subjects who inhaled a placebo.

Researchers found that when participants were given oxytocin through a nasal spray, participants playing the ultimatum game were 80 percent more generous in their offers to split the money.

“People left the lab with less money,” said Zak. “But they weren’t necessarily unhappy.

“We are designed to care about others. The reason we are charitable is that we can’t help it, we have a built in brain mechanism that connects us to other people.” [From Hormone May Have Link to Generosity by Carla Williams, ABC News.]

Will the next charity auction you go to be surreptitiously pumping oxytocin into the air? I hope not. With results like Zak’s, though, it’s easy to imagine an unethical “charity” trying to figure out how to get a shot of oxytocin into their donors just before they write a check.

On a more positive note, I think that Zak’s work will help us better understand the hows and whys of charitable giving and, perhaps, more about trust and social interaction. This could help both for-profit and non-profit marketers find better ways to interact with their buyers or donors.

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