Small Wonders: Morality just a matter of chemistry?

Good and Evil.

Nurture versus Nature.

Survival of the nicest or survival of the fittest.

Morality: our conformity to the rules of right conduct and virtue. It’s long been territory only for philosophers, theologians and newspaper columnists looking for a story. Its vagaries, its subjective and speculative nature make it a moving target; impossible to measure for those who require practical evidence.

Does morality — a trait present only in humans — come from a spiritual creator? Or from learned and developed behavior naturally selected over the millennia? Either way, isolating hard evidence of its source has proven to be a rabbit hole.

Historically, humans have shown themselves to be horrifically cruel and overwhelmingly benevolent; staunchly trustworthy and insidiously corrupt. So what is it that causes a person to respond with generosity over selfishness, empathy over apathy?

According to one researcher, the answer is “The Moral Molecule.”

Paul Zak, professor of Economics at Claremont Graduate University and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, has researched the “chemistry of morality” over the last 10 years. He believes that oxytocin, a hormone found only in humans, is at the root of our moral judgment.

In his studies, he found that test participants who performed selfless acts experienced a surge of oxytocin in their bloodstream. Those who received the act of kindness likewise produced increased oxytocin levels and were even more likely to respond generously.

“Pay it forward” proven in the laboratory.

In control groups where half were given a placebo and half oxytocin, the oxytocin groups showed more than double the positive behavior. Changes in a person’s oxytocin level actually predicted their feelings of empathy. And it is empathy that connects us to others, causing us to help and care about them. In other words, oxytocin makes us moral.

The studies also showed that subjects who were abused or improperly nurtured in their early years often had extremely low levels of oxytocin production, while those with stable upbringings had much higher levels, and more readily produced the hormone.

The inability to secrete oxytocin was linked to those who exhibit narcissistic and even sociopathic behavior. High-stress environments have been shown to inhibit the release of oxytocin, as has the presence of large amounts of testosterone.

If we take this research empirically, it begs obvious questions. Does a utopian society await us if we all are inoculated with oxytocin? Are we no longer responsible for our actions due to an abundance, or lack, of some chemical in our brains? Are we mere victims of our chemical nature?

In this amateur thinker’s opinion, no. No more than we are victims to anger, frustration, jealousy, hunger, cold or bad moods. All are conditions we can rectify.

Knowing about oxytocin’s effects shows us how to turn up behavior that produces it, as well as what actions will shut off the spigot; how to be moral, and perhaps more importantly, how to avoid immorality.

The prescription, according to Zak? Eight hugs per day.

Referring to trustworthiness, tolerance and generosity, Zak said societies that are more moral also have higher standards of living.

“Morality undergirds economic exchange, opening up more opportunities for the creation of wealth that individuals in a transaction can share. And, prosperity can make societies more moral,” he said. “All this occurs as part of our human nature, our brains adapting to evolving social environments.”

Until an oxytocin inoculation is as common as the polio vaccine — or even a Xanax prescription — Zak also recommends massage, dancing and prayer. Churchgoers were found to have high levels of oxytocin, as were wedding participants — with the bride and mother of the bride showing off-the-chart levels.

Even using social media was proven to stimulate the release of oxytocin in test subjects. Why? It connects people.

This all demonstrates not our reliance on chemicals, but our reliance on each other; our need to touch other lives and have them touch ours. It proves that what we really need is right relationships with people.

Our actions toward each other directly increase or decrease the level of our morality, a notion that has been around since the dawn of man.

And it doesn’t matter whether man climbed out of an ancient bacterial bog and evolved into the specimen we see today, or was hand-molded from dirt by a master potter watching over his creation.

Just something to think about as we slog knee-deep into campaign season arguing about universal healthcare, social welfare programs and tax policy.

None of it really matters if we don’t do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

PATRICK CANEDAY is author of the book “Crooked Little Birdhouse” now available on Kindle. Contact him at, friend him on Facebook, read more at

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