November 06, 2007
Oxytocin Infusion Makes People More Generous With Money

Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont, Angela Stanton at Chapman University, and Sheila Ahmadi at UCLA Geffen School of Medicine have found that injecting people with oxytocin makes them more generous.

Human beings routinely help strangers at costs to themselves. Sometimes the help offered is generous—offering more than the other expects. The proximate mechanisms supporting generosity are not well-understood, but several lines of research suggest a role for empathy. In this study, participants were infused with 40 IU oxytocin (OT) or placebo and engaged in a blinded, one-shot decision on how to split a sum of money with a stranger that could be rejected. Those on OT were 80% more generous than those given a placebo. OT had no effect on a unilateral monetary transfer task dissociating generosity from altruism. OT and altruism together predicted almost half the interpersonal variation in generosity. Notably, OT had twofold larger impact on generosity compared to altruism. This indicates that generosity is associated with both altruism as well as an emotional identification with another person.

The idea is that if you increase the extent to which you care about the feelings of others then you'll behave in ways that reduce the amount of negative response they'll have. Obviously, the extent to which humans feel empathy for others varies enormously. We feel different amounts of empathy depending on who the other person is and what the circumstances are. Also, people differ from each other in the amount of empathy they feel in similar circumstances. Some really lack in empathy.

They draw a distinction between altruism and generosity and find that oxytocin (OT) boosts generosity more than it boosts altruism.

In this paper we investigate a mechanism that may produce generosity while dissociating generosity from altruism. Altruism is defined as helping another at a cost to oneself [Sober, p 17, 15]. Generosity is defined as “liberality in giving” [16] or offering more to another than he or she expects or needs. Generosity is therefore a subset of altruism. For example, one may give a homeless person 25 cents (altruism) or ten dollars (altruism and generosity).

I think use of a homeless person is a poor example. I once read an article by a police officer arguing against donations to homeless people because the homeless in my town have plenty of food and places to sleep and use the money to buy alcohol and drugs. In other words, altruism doesn't always help recipients.

They were trying to figure out how much the feeling of empathy causes altruistic and generous behavior.

We investigated the role of empathy in producing generosity by manipulating a physiologic mechanism hypothesized to instantiate empathy, the neuromodulator oxytocin (OT). A substantial animal literature has established that OT facilitates attachment to offspring, and in monogamous mammals, cohabiting sexual partners and same-sex conspecifics [31][33]. Recent human studies have shown that OT facilitates a temporary attachment between strangers, increasing trust and reciprocity [34][38]. In the present paper, we test whether OT is a proximate mechanism prompting generosity between anonymous human strangers. Two tasks were used to dissociate the physiologic role of empathy in producing generosity and altruism using monetary transfers. Monetary transfers were used to obtain objective and active measures of generosity and altruism.

They used two different games where one person was given cash and the games provided different incentives to the person who started out with the cash as to whether to give to the other person in the game. The differences between the games allowed them to separate out the influence which OT has on altruism versus generosity. Well, OT boosts generosity more than it boosts altruism. Read the full paper (it is open access on Plos One) for a longer description of their findings.

I suspect altruism and generosity will become less common in the future. Selective pressures and genetic engineering will reduce the incidence of these traits because the traits are less adaptive in really large scale societies. You don't have enough repeat dealings with a small group of people to make altruistic behavior a big benefit. I also suspect humans will become more clannish and there'll be less a sense of a common interest and the belonging to a commonwealth.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 November 06 09:24 PM  Brain Altruism

HellKaiserRyo said at November 6, 2007 9:37 PM:

Hopefully altruism would be forced by the government. Such a trait is need for a utilitarian society.

guest said at November 7, 2007 11:02 AM:

"Such a trait is need for a utilitarian society."

Actually, a utilitarian society can function quite well even under complete selfishness... provided that all transactions are completely costless, which of course they aren't. In the real world, some degree of altruism and empathy is needed in order to participate effectively in a capitalist economy. This point was first made by Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments: it was confirmed by modern institutional economics.

Dew said at November 7, 2007 5:37 PM:

If someone wanting money from me offers me anything that causes me to cramp, and/or lactate, I'll be very suspicious.

k said at November 7, 2007 7:02 PM:


I never did hear how you chose your screen name. My guess was that it had something to do with Kurzweil. But I can't make it work.

Mthson said at November 7, 2007 9:52 PM:

I believe his name signifies through spoonerism that he tends to raise hell, and is half Japanese (Kyo) and half German (Kaiser).

averros said at November 8, 2007 11:09 AM:

provided that all transactions are completely costless

This is plainly false. The theory that transaction costs somehow makes regulation of market necessary is ridiculous - it fails to take into account the fact that acquiring information is also an economic activity and has its cost; thus market optimizes the expenditure to balance costs of learning vs benefits of better informed transactions. Ditto for transportation and other transaction costs.

Most "modern institutional economics" is pseudo-science existing solely for the purpose of finding contrived explanations of why the government should meddle in the economy (and keep paying the economists).

averros said at November 8, 2007 11:14 AM:

Hopefully altruism would be forced by the government.

Yep. Such enforcement is called "communism".

The desire of some Americans to build a replica of North Korea on a larger scale is simply amazing.

Mthson said at November 8, 2007 5:56 PM:
Such enforcement is called "communism".
Regulating the engineering of human nature would have the goal of reducing the social regulation necessary to maintain an efficient market. Communism, on the other hand, had the economic system working against human nature.
averros said at November 9, 2007 2:54 AM:

Mthson - you may want to look closer at the history of the communism. One of its stated goals was to "make a new man" by re-education, biology, or whatever gimmic possible. The Soviet Union was full of propaganda praising the future super-men aka "builders of communism". They were supposed to be totally altruistic, physically, and mentally perfect (not unlike Nazi ubermench). It even spawned Lysenkoism, a branch of pseudo-science which denied genetics and maintained that acquired phenotypical traits can be inherited - and which conveniently provided "scientific" basis for the then-feasible ways of breeding better men.

The idea of social engineering by means of genetical manipulation is the same kind of shit, only with up-to-date buzzwords.

The fundamental problem with "engineering of human nature" is that it is done without consent of people so "regulated". Not much different from ethnic cleansings, only less crude, - both strive to improve the human race, from the point of view of the gang doing "improving".

Frankly, I find the enthusiasm for the ideas which not so long ago spawned mega-bloodbaths quite disgusting; in the most charitable interpretation it betrays the deep ignorance of the recent history, or plain stupidity. Its lees charitable interpretations make me worry about sufficiency of my ammo stock.

Randall Parker said at November 9, 2007 6:59 PM:


In the future mass altruism really can be achievable by government and quite successfully! Genetic engineering will make it possible.

The Soviet Union lacked the technology needed to create New Soviet Man. But that technological lack is a temporary condition. Some day some semi-humans genetically engineered to be good communists may construct a very successful communist society.

The mass blood baths won't be needed. People will happily follow directions if they are designed to do so.


Yes, regulating human nature will be far more efficacious than regulating human behavior.

Some argue that government-directed genetic engineering is evil. Well, I certainly don't want to live in a society where everyone is genetically engineered to be good communists. But I have a hard time seeing a reason to outlaw some pathological personality types. Like, why shouldn't we outlaw genetic engineering aimed at creating psychopaths?

K said at November 9, 2007 11:30 PM:

Randall: you won't live in the good communists society unless you are young. But modifying people to make them agreeable leads to that blessed land. When a person is altered to be agreeable he is being altered to be agreeable as 'agreeable' is defined by those doing the altering.

The problem, and this was forseen long ago, is that you begin with those most out of step with desired behaviors. But unless everyone is the same there will always remain more who seem out of step.

It is the old bell distribution curve, some attitudes will always be extreme because the allowed variation narrows as you proceed. I forget the statistical terms, I think electronic engineers used Q to denote how sharply an analog circuit peaked.

So the modifications continue, alway with the good intention of making society agreeable. First those with one undesired trait are fixed, then those with another, then with a third, and .......

To whom are people to be agreeable? It must be to the government because the government certainly isn't going to allow disagreeable modifications. The universal aim of government throughout history has been to have a meek, obedient, and peaceful population with no troublemakers. Science will soon supply better tools, perhaps the ultimate tools.

Comment about the USSR to follow.

K said at November 10, 2007 12:00 AM:

"The Soviet Union lacked the technology needed to create New Soviet Man. But that technological lack is a temporary condition. Some day some semi-humans genetically engineered to be good communists may construct a very successful communist society."

There is much truth in that statement. In the past peoople have resisted in various ways. Certainly by force - war or rebellion. When force was futile there were other tactics that sometimes worked. Lip service. Sabotage. Lying. Fleeing (outmigration).

Gorbachev said the big problems toward the end of the USSR were lip service and lying. The leaders couldn't trust the data they used to plan. Fatal in a centrally planned economy.

Gorby said a lot of things and still does, he is somewhat the Jimmy Carter of Russia. Maybe he isn't worth listening to. But I think he had a point. Imagine if the USSR had been able to actually alter people. Just snip out any disagreeable attitudes and put in the happy faces.

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright ©