To trigger this "moral molecule," all you have to do is give someone a sign of trust. When one person extends himself to another in a trusting way—by, say, giving money—the person being trusted experiences a surge in oxytocin that makes her less likely to hold back and less likely to cheat. Which is another way of saying that the feeling of being trusted makes a person more…trustworthy. Which, over time, makes other people more inclined to trust, which in turn…
If you detect the makings of an endless loop that can feed back onto itself, creating what might be called a virtuous circle—and ultimately a more virtuous society—you are getting the idea….
The experiments I have conducted show that many group activities—singing, dancing, praying—cause the release of oxytocin and promote connection and caring. As social creatures, we have created activities that prompt the expression of oxytocin in order to foster connection to others. In fact, those who release the most oxytocin when they are trusted are happier and healthier because they have richer social lives.
Zak notes that oxytocin is not a panacea for all of today's ills, since humans also have other hormones that relate to fear and fight. But sharing moral space with others can, over time, create possibilities for a virtue cycle developing. Unless you are living in Israel/Palestine, in which case exposure to differences often leads to a vicious cycle. It's complicated. It is wonderful that neuroeconomics has become part of our toolkit for understanding cooperation and competition.
[UPDATE: Pretty soon (5-10 years?) we'll be able to use oxytocin inhalers when we want to force people to cooperate. Car dealerships will pipe oxytocin into their ventilation systems so people will trust them to buy their car! It's a Brave New World out there.]