Week 4 First Impression

http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_zak_trust_morality_and_oxytocin

As I mentioned in my first post, I have some background in philosophy and am fascinated by morality. Morality can be very simply described as the way by which we distinguish right from wrong in a given situation. It is important because it has a profound effect on our behavior. We tend to be far more likely to do things that are considered to be good than things that are considered to be bad. This is obvious, but how do we determine what is good or bad? Most of us will use religion or the law, which is a societal construct, as our moral framework but neither of these options are flawless. Philosophers started to try and answer this question over two thousand years ago and we still don’t have a perfect answer. This TED talk interested me because I saw the word morality in the title and wanted to know what the presenter had to say on the topic.

This talk by Dr. Paul Zak, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, focuses on establishing oxytocin, normally released during birth, breastfeeding, and sex, as “the moral molecule.” Dr. Zak begins by pointing out the importance of morality and then explains his theory that oxytocin increases trust, trustworthiness, empathy, and morality. He bases this statement on a series of experiments he conducted. The first was an experiment designed to show that oxytocin increases trust and trustworthiness. He placed multiple individuals in isolation and gave them ten dollars. They were then asked if they would like to give a portion of the ten dollars, which would be tripled, to another participant of the study who would have the option of sending some money back to the original participant. Dr. Zak measured the amount of oxytocin before and after the experiment was performed and found that individuals who gave more and individuals who returned more had greater amounts of oxytocin in their blood. He then ran a series of similar experiments where he gave some of the participants a nasal inhaler of oxytocin and some a placebo and found that the oxytocin increased money transfers by 80%. He conducted another experiment to show that oxytocin was tied to empathy by having participants watch a video of a father with his four-year-old son who had brain cancer and then measuring their oxytocin levels. This was followed by testing people before and after a wedding as well as during social media usage to further draw a link between oxytocin and empathy. The presentation concludes with Dr. Zak instructing the audience that they could increase their oxytocin levels by giving 8 hugs a day and that it would make them happier by improving relationships of all kinds.

I found this TED talk interesting primarily because of the implications of this research because having a chemical that can increase trust, trustworthiness, empathy, morality, happiness, and the strength of relationships sounds too good to be true. The information presented does, at first glance, seem solid but the longer you think about it, the more it starts to fall apart. To begin, most of the research focuses on empathy and trust and while these are both good attributes to have, they are not, in and of themselves morality. I also have an issue with the way that Dr. Zak brushed over the happiness claim by just stating that they had found it to be true but not explaining any kind of research or experiment. The claim that oxytocin increases happiness and improves relationships is the most grandiose but it also has the weakest basis in fact and would be extremely hard to prove. I’m not sure how you would operationalize happiness in a comprehensive way or how you would effectively demonstrate improvement in a relationship because there are so many variables you can’t control in people’s lives that it would be hard to definitively show that the oxytocin alone was responsible. Dr. Zak also doesn’t explain why he specified that you need to have eight hugs a day. Why does it need to be eight? Do you release a specific amount of oxytocin per hug and is there some kind of requisite amount of oxytocin necessary to experience the benefits of oxytocin? I also wonder if there may be some other attribute of the hug that increases happiness rather than oxytocin. For example, hugs, in our society, are demonstrations of affection and companionship. Could it be that increased feelings of acceptance and intimacy caused by the frequent hugs are what cause the increase in happiness? There is also the issue that other studies have found that oxytocin can increase feelings of envy and decrease cooperation. Consequently, it seems that we’ll need a lot more research before we can definitively describe the effects of oxytocin.

I would like to examine Dr. Zak’s claim that eight hugs a day will increase happiness by improving relationships. The focus of this research then would be to determine the effects of hugs on happiness. I would conduct this research by randomly selecting 200 people and assigning half of them to give exactly eight hugs a day without telling them why to reduce the possibility of participants experiencing a placebo effect. Over the course of six months, I would have participants rate their happiness on a scale of one to ten and write a short description of why they assigned that value to their happiness each week. At the end of this six-month period, I would give a comprehensive debriefing to the participants and then analyze the data retrieved by the experiment. I would look to see if the group who gave hugs showed an over-all increase in their happiness scale selections and then see if their short descriptions attributed their happiness to improvements in relationships or other factors. The main issue with this experiment would be that a person’s own reflection on their happiness may be inaccurate or may be affected by outside influences but as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, it would be extremely difficult to come up with a comprehensive operational value for happiness.

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2 thoughts on “Week 4 First Impression

  1. You ask a lot of really good questions here. If Dr. Zak only talked about oxytocin only having support for increasing trust and empathy, I’m not exactly sure why he would have generalized to morality and happiness. Claims need at least some kind of evidence to back them up. You also have good points about happiness being difficult to operationalize, and I think you’re right that there are many variables in such actions as hugging someone that could make it difficult to isolate oxytocin as the cause. The suggestion to give out eight hugs a day does sound like he was just throwing a random number out there.

    Since happiness is hard to measure, I would honestly agree that one of the only ways we know how is to have people rate their feelings on some sort of scale. It definitely has the drawbacks you mentioned (self-reports aren’t always the most accurate), but options in this area are pretty limited. I also find it interesting how you would do this experiment over a long period of time to see if the effects of giving eight hugs a day would have long-term consequences, and having them keep a journal of sorts to explain why they rated their happiness the way they did could be a good way to see if they are (at least consciously) attributing their happiness to external causes. My only suggestion here might be to also ask them to record how many hugs a day they give. I know that might give it away, but it’s possible not everyone in the experimental group would be able to give that many every day and if anyone in the control group were to get a lot of hugs every day, I would think that might be a possible confound. Overall, I think your idea is pretty solid (given the complex nature of the variables)!

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  2. Great job identifying holes in the arguments Dr. Zak presented Ethan. Excellent example of applying critical thinking and careful skepticism to claims even when they seem very credible on the surface.

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