Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Paul Zak, Oxytocin Skeptic?

Could a single molecule—one chemical substance—lie at the very center of our moral lives?

Research that I have done over the past decade suggests that a chemical messenger called oxytocin accounts for why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted louts, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life, why some husbands are more faithful than others, and why women tend to be nicer and more generous than men. In our blood and in the brain, oxytocin appears to be the chemical elixir that creates bonds of trust not just in our intimate relationships but also in our business dealings, in politics and in society at large.

-Dr. Paul J. Zak in The Moral Molecule (excerpt)

By now, many of you have read Ed Yong's scathing reaction to Paul Zak's new book:
One Molecule for Love, Morality, and Prosperity?

Why the hype about oxytocin is dumb and dangerous.

Imagine a molecule that underlies the virtues that glue societies together. Imagine that it brought out the better angels of our nature with just a sniff and could “rebond our troubled world.” Imagine that it was the “source of love and prosperity” and explained “what makes us good and evil.”

Well, carry on imagining. This is a story about oxytocin, and oxytocin is not that molecule.

The book was published in May, so what was the impetus behind Yong's article, and his #Schmoxytocin commentary (helpfully summarized here)?
He was recently profiled by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian, the latest episode in a long flirtation with the media in which he regularly expounds on oxytocin’s supposed wonders. You can see why journalists love him. He’s charming, handsome, and infused with that “big ideas” aesthetic that TED so adores. When he delivered his own TED talk in July 2011, he unabashedly claimed that he had found the molecule behind why we’re moral.

The problem with the moral molecule idea is that it turns science—messy, complex, frustrating as it is—into a tidy fable. It’s a bit too ... well ... TED-dy. It not only tells people what they want to hear but also makes them feel delightfully subversive for understanding the secret simplicity of the world.

Yong reviewed a substantial amount of evidence that is counter to that tidy fable, including Conlisk (2011), who concluded that Zak and coauthors "analyzed experimental data in doubtful ways, thus exaggerating results."

However, what you may not know is that Zak took a much more measured approach to oxytocin as recently as 4 years ago, as these quotes from ABC News reveal:
So when it comes to Liquid Trust, do people need a dose of liquid skepticism instead? Zak says perhaps.

"There's probably a big placebo effect. ... It's not a crutch for people who are nervous," he notes. "Having said that, our findings are very exciting. Hopefully, people will just get the straight story and not the hype."

And this:
"I have gotten an enormous number of calls from patients," says Zak, adding that one e-mail he received was from a woman whose social phobia had confined her to her house for the past 10 years. She hoped the oxytocin spray would help her overcome her fear of socializing.

"What do you write back to that kind of message?" Zak says.

The impetus for these calls and e-mails, he says, is his being quoted in a story that ran in the U.K. press [Daily Mail]. The article sported the provocative headline "Scientists Find Childbirth Wonder Drug That Can 'Cure' Shyness."

"They were very much too hyperbolic," Zak says of the piece. "I think media around the world have started to use the word 'cure.' … This hormone does not cure anything."

So 'Trust Drug' Oxytocin Unbelievable For Now (in 2008), but in 2012:
After centuries of speculation about human nature and how we decide what is the right thing to do, we at last have some news we can use—empirical evidence that illuminates the mechanism at the heart of our moral guidance system. So what can we do to shift behavior a bit more toward the expression of oxytocin and thus improve the workings of our entire society?

With hype like that, it's hard to believe that Zak was my source of critical commentary on Liquid Trust:
On that score, a body spray on the market called ''Liquid Trust," is advertised as containing oxytocin that will induce unconscious trust in all who encounter you. But Zak said it's ''totally bogus," because sniffing oxytocin from someone's shirt collar will not get enough of the hormone to the brain. It's also available without a prescription -- unlike the real stuff -- he said, and overpriced: ''Liquid Trust" costs $49.95 for a two-month supply, while Zak and his colleagues made their inhalers for about $5 each.

What happened in the last few years? Was it the TEDification of academic media success and book deals? Repeated use of the first person singular when referring to work done by a multitude of people?

"...The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity details how I discovered a brain chemical, oxytocin, that makes us moral."

Perhaps Dr. Zak should remember the good old days, when he could tell the Boston Globe that...
The dose needed to produce effects on trust was large -- subjects took about three teaspoonsful up their noses. But it appears to be quite safe, said Zak, who is director of the center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California.

The biggest side effect is that perhaps 20 percent of the men who take it get erections, he said, and, of course, pregnant women would want to avoid it because it could trigger contractions.

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At July 19, 2012 9:25 PM, Blogger TheCellularScale said...

Great angle on the schmoxytocin thing. I didn't realize this guy was previously so level-headed. It's a shame to see a voice of reason turn to hyperbole like that. Hyperbole sells though, just ask Jonah.

At July 27, 2012 11:28 AM, Blogger twaza (@wassabeee on twitter) said...

A TED talk and all the media attention is like three teapotsful of schmoxytocin into the carotid arteries. No wonder his head is in the clouds.


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