Does ‘Oxytocin Man’ have real magic powers? : RSA blogs.

Does ‘Oxytocin Man’ have real magic powers?

July 20, 2012 by 
Filed under: Social Brain

Oxytocin Man is Paul Zak, and the quick answer to the title question seems to be ‘no’.

I came across the partly endearing and partly ridiculing nickname through a tweet by Ben Goldacre: “I met the Oxytocin man when I spoke at TED. He said “I guess you’d probably say my schtick is Bad Science” “Why’s that?” I asked.”

So far, so intriguing, but I had to investigate further when I noticed Goldacre attacked Guardian writer and author Oliver Burkeman on Twitter:

“This, from @oliverburkeman in the Guardian on oxytocin and trust, is embarrassing credulous pseudoscience bulls**t 

I enjoyed chairing an RSA event with Oliver last year, loved his previous book ‘Help!’, and generally like his columns, so I was intrigued to see what he had done wrong in Goldacre’s eyes.

Zak believes that Oxytocin is THE ‘moral molecule’ that creates trust, social bonds and so forth, and that we should do what we can to bring more of it into the world, for instance by hugging each other more than we currently do. In the Guardian article we learn that:

“Oxytocin emerges from Zak’s research as something much more all-embracing: the “moral molecule” behind all human virtue, trust, affection and love, “a social glue”, as he puts it, “that keeps society together”.”

Burkeman’s perceived mistake was to entertain Paul Zak’s ideas without robustly checking and challenging the scientific evidence behind them. In the article he does fall short of endorsing Zak wholesale, but perhaps could have expressed his implicit reservations more explicitly.

Part of the challenge is that Paul Zak is apparently ‘charm personified’, he spoke at the RSAand, for what it’s worth, he was he was named by Wired magazine as one of the 10 Sexiest Geeks in 2005.

Also, I suppose it’s hard to get angry with a man who advocates that we hug each other more often.

it’s hard to get angry with a man who advocates that we hug each other more often.

So from the level of civility, I sympathise with Burkeman, but intellectually I can see where   Goldacre is coming from. Much of Zak’s work does strike me as pseudoscientific, in that it appears to ask too much from one molecule, and goes way beyond the evidence base when describing the role of Oxytocin. In the language of Ray Tallis, he is guilty of the worst excesses of ‘Neuromania‘.

Oxytocin cannot be meaningfully thought of as the sole cause or consequence of anything, and in so far as it can, it has a dark side. While it may lead us to feel warmer towards our in-group, it can also make us feel more hostile towards out-groups, as this New Scientist piece explains.

Ed Yong gives an informed and sophisticated account of the evidence base more generally. I would encourage you to read the entire Slate article, but the main idea is that Oxytocin is part of a wider adaptive system for social behaviour that acts against the background of our histories and emotions. The paragraph that pulls the rug from under Oxytocin Man is the following:

“The problem with oxytocin research is that too many people have been focusing on cataloging what it does (at least in some situations), rather than how it works. Say I’m new to computers and install my first Web browser. Suddenly, I can talk to friends, check train times, and buy books. Web browsers look like a pretty sweet thing. Then I discover Chatroulette and things are not sweet any longer. And none of this tells me anything about the existence of the internet, servers, code, and so on. I know what Web browsers can do, but not how they work.”

So although I can’t share the outrage and ire expressed in the name of Science,  the balance of evidence does seem to question the magical powers of Oxytocin Man. However, fear not, for following from Yong’s trenchant critique, two new twitter accounts appeared online: Oxytocin Hulk and Oxytocin Batman.