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June 2, 2005 11:49 AM PDT
Scientists put trust in a bottle

How do you know whether to trust someone else? Yes, your sound judgment helps. But according to a team of Swiss-led researchers, your feelings of trust could be deepened if you were exposed to artificial levels of a hormone known as oxytocin.

Oxytocin is generated naturally by the brain--and scientists have long associated it with positive social behaviors. It's sometimes called the hormone of love.

The hormone's effect specifically on trust hasn't been well understood. But in an experiment described in this month's edition of the journal Nature, scientists found that people playing an investment game were more likely to trust others if they inhaled a nasal spray that contained oxytocin. In the game, people acting as "investors" were given money-tokens that they could in turn give to "trustees." Handing a token to a trustee quadrupled its value. The catch: Trustees didn't have to share any of the proceeds with the investors. Still, scientists found that investors who had taken a whiff of the oxytocin potion were more likely to give up their tokens.

The researchers, who were led by Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich, hope that their findings will lead to treatments for people with social phobias and autism.

So, is there a danger that oxytocin could be misused by merchants trying to get you to believe pathetic sales pitches? Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, told that there shouldn't be much to worry about. In any event, advertising already appeals to the parts of your mind that produce oxytocin, he said.

"It lures you in with images of wonderful landscapes or sex, and it probably works in exactly the same way," Damasio told