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The Biology of Morality

Pederasty is awful. That may go without saying, but we've seen a few dangers of going without saying this past week. It's down among the lowest of our possible human behaviors, damages countless lives for years after its acts and is immensely challenging to our society's structures and our personal human reactions to it. It's awful. I've spent the past week intermittently weeping, playing with my children, hugging my family and trying, trying to figure out some things I can do about this going forward. At the moment, I haven't gotten very far, but today I stumbled across this TED talk I thought might be an interesting (if not directly helpful) sidebar to a few of the attendant issues in this pederasty scandal.

It's by a professor at Claremont Graduate University named Paul Zak, whose bio describes him as a 'pioneer in a new field called neuroeconomics.' He's been researching a human protein-like molecule called oxytocin. In his talk, he walks through a few of his team's experiments and their conclusions that this molecule is closely correlated to trust, empathy & morality decisions, and that it can be raised and lowered with a few simple behaviors. Here is the 16-minute video, and I've got a few crude notes after the jump.

The first experiment:

But I'm also a skeptic. I don't want to just ask people, "Are you trustworthy?" So instead I use the Jerry Maguire approach to research. If you're so virtuous, show me the money. So what we do in my lab is we tempt people with virtue and vice by using money. Let me show you how we do that. So we recruit some people for an experiment. They all get $10 if they agree to show up. We give them lots of instruction, and we never ever deceive them. Then we match them in pairs by computer. And in that pair, one person gets a message saying, "Do you want to give up some of your $10 you earned for being here and ship it to someone else in the lab?" The trick is you can't see them, you can't talk to them. You only do it one time. Now whatever you give up gets tripled in the other person's account. You're going to make them a lot wealthier. And they get a message by computer saying person one sent you this amount of money. Do you want to keep it all, or do you want to send some amount back?

And its results:

That's not what we found. We found 90 percent of the first decision-makers sent money, and of those who received money, 95 percent returned some of it. But why? Well by measuring oxytocin we found that the more money the second person received, the more their brain produced oxytocin, and the more oxytocin on board, the more money they returned. So we have a biology of trustworthiness.

In the second experiment, Professor Zak tells a story of getting conned while working as a High School gas station attendant and notes that his teams 'found, testing thousands of individuals, that five percent of the population don't release oxytocin on stimulus. So if you trust them, their brains don't release oxytocin. If there's money on the table, they keep it all.'

When he notes that

there are other ways the system can be inhibited. One is through improper nurturing. So we've studied sexually abused women, and about half those don't release oxytocin on stimulus. You need enough nurturing for this system to develop properly.

I though of pederasty victims and how their biology may be forever changed. I also recognize that may sound a little strained. And when he says 'Also, high stress inhibits oxytocin. So we all know this, when we're really stressed out, we're not acting our best,' I thought of BSD last week.

He goes on a bit with some additional experiments they performed in Korea and New Guinea and includes some results that indicate our oxytocin levels even spike when using social media. And he wraps it all up with a corny, but very possibly useful summary: that the easiest way to spike our oxytocin levels is by giving hugs.

I still don't know what I'm going to do to help improve the safety of our children going forward or what I will do if confronted by suspicions of danger, but I'm pretty sure it's already begun with awareness. And I'm damn sure it's going to involve togetherness. Pederasty is everyone's problem and we'll have to solve work through it together. So for now, as I have every day of the terrible past week, I'm gonna go ahead and grab this low-hanging fruit and dish out & accept a few more hugs.

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