Challenging Assumptions: New Research on the Role of Oxytocin in Trust

Building a culture of trust is crucial for any business leader looking to create a successful organization. Trust creates a sense of psychological safety that encourages innovation, collaboration, and productivity among team members. While the hormone oxytocin has been thought to play a significant role in building and maintaining trust, recent research challenges this assumption. 

Oxytocin is a hormone that is thought to play an important role in building and maintaining that trust. When we feel trusted or when we trust someone else, oxytocin is released in our brains, creating a sense of positive emotions and strengthening the bond between individuals. This can lead to increased collaboration, better teamwork, and higher levels of motivation and loyalty among team members.

But is oxytocin indispensable for building and maintaining trust? A recent study from Stanford University and the University of California says maybe not.

The relationship between oxytocin and parenting behaviours has been researched for decades. The studies have used an animal model, and oxytocin was thought to control these behaviours. But the results have been mixed. 

The research team decided to test the assumption that oxytocin is required for pair-bonding and parenting behaviours, using prairie voles. Prairie voles are an exception to the norm in the animal kingdom as they exhibit monogamous behaviour and lifetime pair-bonding. They take care of their offspring by keeping them warm and retrieving them if they wander too far from the nest. This is unlike most animals, where devoted parents and monogamy are rare. 

The researchers used the gene-editing technology CRISPR to generate mutant prairie voles that lacked the oxytocin receptor and found that both the male and female mutant voles were still able to form pair bonds and display parental behaviors, contradicting the previous belief that these behaviors require the oxytocin receptor. The results suggest that pair bonding and parental behaviors in prairie voles can occur independent of oxytocin receptors.

"In fact, no result from the study—which was 15 years in the making—indicated a critical role for the oxytocin receptor in pro-social behavior (at least, not in prairie voles) or, by extension, for oxytocin."

The current model that suggests a single pathway or molecule is responsible for social attachment is oversimplified. From an evolutionary perspective, attachment is crucial for the survival of social species, so it makes sense that there are likely other pathways or genetic wiring that enable this behaviour, and oxytocin is only one part of it, not the sole factor.

What does this mean for the role of oxytocin in building trust in the workplace?

Oxytocin may not be critical for building and maintaining trust. There are likely other pathways that also support trust building. 

The thing is, we don't always need a neuroscience explanation for why something is the way it is. Regardless of whether oxytocin is implicated in building trust, we know that trust is good for creating successful organizations. 

Here are some ways to increase trust within your organization and improve performance (Zak, 2017):

  • Recognize excellence.
  • Induce “challenge stress.”
  • Give people discretion in how they do their work
  • Enable job crafting
  • Share information broadly
  • Intentionally build relationships
  • Facilitate whole-person growth
  • Show vulnerability
  • References:

    Berendzen, K. M., Sharma, R., Mandujano, M. A., Wei, Y., Rogers, F. D., Simmons, T. C., Seelke, A. M. H., Bond, J. M., Larios, R., Goodwin, N. L., Sherman, M., Parthasarthy, S., Espineda, I., Knoedler, J. R., Beery, A., Bales, K. L., Shah, N. M., & Manoli, D. S. (2023). Oxytocin receptor is not required for social attachment in prairie voles. Neuron.

    Donaldson, Z. R. & Young, L. J. (2008). Oxytocin, vasopressin, and the neurogenetics of sociality. Neuron, 322, 5903, 900-904.

    Insel, T.R. (2010). The challenge of translation in social neuroscience: a review of oxytocin, vasopressin, and affiliative behavior. Neuron. 2010 Mar 25;65(6):768-79. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.03.005.

    Zak, P. J. (2017). The Neuroscience of Trust. HBR (January-February 2017).


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