Rod Dreher

Here’s an interesting report from NPR about the possible connection between distrust of government and the presence in the brain of oxytocin. I wrote not long about about research scientist Dr. Paul Zak (full disclosure: a Templeton grantee) and his study of how the brain chemical oxytocin affects our sense of generosity and openness to others — and how that can make us susceptible to being conned. From NPR’s report:

Zak first got interested in trust more than a decade ago after co-authoring a study that looked at trust levels in different nations and their economic stability. The study found that the higher the level of trust, the better the economic status of the nation.
The work got Zak thinking more generally about different ways to manipulate trust, and so starting in 2001, Zak began spraying oxytocin up the noses of college students to see if the hormone would change the way they interacted with strangers.
It did. Squirt oxytocin up the nose of a college kid, and he’s 80 percent more likely to distribute his own money to perfect strangers.
This gave Zak an idea. Like some comic-book villain concocting a plan to take over the world by dumping happy pills in the water supply, he wondered if it might be possible to use this molecule — oxytocin — to change the way people felt about the government.
“How much does this scale up?” Zak wondered. Could the effect go from the individual all the way up to gigantic institutions like the government? Zak decided to see. He undertook this experiment at a particular historical moment: America was in the midst of the Great Recession.
“Trust in government is at an all-time low, and there certainly are kinda macro reasons for that,” says Zak. “But could there be biological reasons? That was the question in this study: To what degree does the biology of trust, which we associate with oxytocin, affect trust in government and trust in government officials?”

Prolonged exposure to stress — like, say, in a lengthy economic crisis — inhibits oxytocin production in the brain, says Zak. Thus, aside from any sort of formal critical analysis any of us might undertake of government actions, there could be a non-cognitive biological basis for not trusting the government at this point. It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg thing, though: if the government behaves in a way that’s not trustworthy, wouldn’t forming a judgment that the government isn’t credible inhibit oxytocin production? Then again, I suppose Zak could say that living in a condition of prolonged stress makes it more likely that we will give weight to evidence that the government isn’t trustworthy, and we will also undervalue evidence that the government deserves our confidence. In other words, the presence (or lack) of oxytocin in our brains conditions the way we interpret evidence.
This was helpful to me in understanding factors contributing to my loss of faith in Catholic ecclesiology. I had been living under such intense stress over the scandal for so long that I had reached the point where I didn’t believe anything Church authorities said, and ultimately I lost faith in the arguments they made for their own authority. I say this not to re-argue that (so if you try to do that, I’ll unpublish your comments), but to raise the possibility that the prolonged stress I was under from writing and thinking about the sex abuse scandal could have changed my brain chemistry to the point at which I was heavily predisposed to distrust the Church leadership, and finally could not believe.
This is interesting in part because it indicates that any institution — political, religious, what have you — that fails to respond swiftly and decisively to a scandal that gets at the heart of its credibility runs the risk of losing the faith of larger number of people in it. That’s a truism, I suppose (of course people are going to lose faith in you if you’re just fooling around and not taking care of business), but the important point to take away is that if Zak is right, then chemical changes in the brain itself can make it harder for authorities who have dilly-dallied in dealing effectively with the cause of scandal to ever win back the trust of others. That’s because at a non-cognitive level, people’s oxytocin-starved brains are less likely to be able to trust authorities. That’s a theory, anyway. Thoughts?

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