MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
All this week, NPR has been exploring the issue of trust in government and asking what it means that distrust is at a near record high. There are many reasons for Americans' trust in government to wax and wane. And some scientists think one of them is pure biology, specifically the hormone oxytocin. It's called the trust hormone because it so profoundly affects our feelings about other people. And some researchers say that includes our feelings about our government.
Now NPR's Alix Spiegel brings us the story of one little girl who is incapable of distrust. One note, for privacy reasons, we are not using her last name.
ALIX SPIEGEL: Before I tell you about how the trust hormone affects you and me, let me tell you about how it shapes the life of a little girl named Isabelle and her mother, Jessica.
Jessica says that often she'll be out running an errand and she'll bump into some well-meaning parent whose child goes to the same school as her daughter Isabelle. The parent, Jessica says, invariably has news they'd like to share, and the conversations always go the same way.
JESSICA: Oh, I saw your daughter today. She's so cute. She always tells me I love you when I see her in the hallway. And I'm just grimacing, thinking, here we go again.
SPIEGEL: The truth is that Isabelle says I love you to everyone: the parents at her school, to people from the neighborhood, to random salespeople. It's constant.
JESSICA: Oh, all the time. You know, to someone like Isabelle, there are no strangers, only friends she's not yet met.
SPIEGEL: Isabelle, you see, has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Scientists theorize that because of a problem in the part of the brain that regulates the productions of the hormone oxytocin, the trust hormone, people with Williams are incredibly friendly, loving, and trusting.
And this presents a terrible dilemma for Jessica, Isabelle's mother. Isabelle completely trusts the world but, of course, the world is not worthy of complete trust. And this reality literally keeps Jessica up at night.
JESSICA: If she can't restrain herself from saying I love you to the Circuit City guy, how is she going to say no if someone is telling her to do something that she doesn't think she should do?
SPIEGEL: And so several years ago, Jessica decided that Williams be damned, she herself would teach Isabelle distrust. There were other symptoms of Williams that Jessica's perseverance had overcome. For example, the Williams kids often have severe cognitive problems. Isabelle had learned to read. But Jessica says this was different.
JESSICA: I just kept thinking, if I can find the right tools, if I can buy a toy that will teach her to do this, if I can buy her a video that will teach her to do this, if we can model the behavior and reward it with sticker charts and just - that willingness to open herself up, we can't get it to go away.
SPIEGEL: The problem from the perspective of Paul Zak, a researcher at Claremont Graduate University, is that Jessica is engaged in a battle against biology itself. There is no sticker chart that can fix Isabelle, Zak believes, because the problem with Isabelle is most likely this fickle little hormone oxytocin. The part of her brain that produces oxytocin doesn't work like yours and mine.
Professor PAUL ZAK (Claremont Graduate University): I've observed children with Williams and they are super-trusters, that is they don't modulate this balance between trust and distrust.
SPIEGEL: And Zak, who is both a neuroscientist and economist, believes there's much to be learned about how oxytocin affects you and me by studying how it affects people with Williams like Isabelle. In the normal brain, Zak explains, oxytocin is generated only after some concrete event or action.
Prof. ZAK: When someone does something nice for you - holds a door -your brain releases this chemical and it downregulates the appropriate fear we have of interacting with strangers.
SPIEGEL: Suddenly, you are filled with a sense - and it is a sense; it's not conscious - that the person before you is not a threat. And then just as quickly, it disappears, for, Zak says, very good reasons.
Prof. ZAK: If you just had high levels of oxytocin, you may be giving away resources to every stranger on the street. So this is a quick on/off system.
SPIEGEL: Unless it gets disregulated, which Zak and other scientists believe is what happens with Williams. Now, back in 2004, Zak started an interesting series of experiments on oxytocin in normal people. Specifically, he began spraying oxytocin up the noses of college students to see if the hormone would change their generosity toward strangers. It did.
Stuff oxytocin up the nose of a college kid and he'll distribute his own money to perfect strangers at an alarming rate: 80 percent more than he would without the oxytocin. This gave Zak an idea. Like some comic book villain concocting a plan to take over the world by dumping happy pills in the water supply, he wondered if it might be possible to use oxytocin to change the way that people felt about the government.
Prof. ZAK: How much does this scale up? Does it go from the individual all the way up to gigantic institutions like the government?
SPIEGEL: In other words, could the same hormone that overwhelms Isabelle change the way a whole population felt? Now, Zak undertook this experiment at a very particular historical moment, the great recession, which also influenced his thinking.
Prof. ZAK: Trust in government is an all-time low, trust in businesses is in an all-time low. And there's certainly are macro reasons for that, but could there be biological reasons?
SPIEGEL: To find out, Zak put 130 test subjects through his normal routines. He sprayed half of them with oxytocin, half with a placebo, then ran them through a battery of tests. This is what he found.
Prof. ZAK: So the people on oxytocin did report on average that they trusted other people more, and the people who trusted others more also trusted the government more. So it's sort of a two-step process.
SPIEGEL: Margaret Levi is another person who has spent a career looking at trust. She's a professor at the University of Washington. And she says this finding is consistent with one of the big theories that's dominated this area for the last 20 or so years. The theory was proposed by a Harvard professor named Robert Putnam, who wrote a famous book called "Bowling Alone."
Professor MARGARET LEVI (Political Science, University of Washington): Putnam argues that the way in which trust in government is generated is basically bottom up. It's from the relationships that we form with others through various kinds of neighborhood and local organizations -soccer clubs, choir groups. And we come to have confidence and trust in each other. And that trust in people leads to a trust in the institutions of government and the institutions of the economy.
SPIEGEL: I should be clear that this is not Levi's own view. From her perspective, it's a direct correlation, so governments have to be trustworthy to get people to trust them.
Prof. LEVI: If we're talking about trust in government, the most important factor is whether people believe that government is doing the job they want government to do for them.
SPIEGEL: This is far more important than biology, Levi says. And others are skeptical about the idea that biology influences trust in government, too, including Robert Putnam, the author of "Bowling Alone." But there is one more argument that Zak makes about of biology and trust that he says defends his theory. It helps explain a fluctuation in trust that political scientists have noticed for years.
You see, consistently, during times of economic hardship, trust in government declines. And Zak says that's not just because government is doing badly at keeping our economy going. Zak says there is a biological explanation for this. Stress is like poison to oxytocin.
Prof. ZAK: So the underlying biological hypotheses is that stress inhibits oxytocin release. So there could be an actually biological reason why trust in government is so low.
SPIEGEL: But whether it's government being effective or biology or some other thing, Paul Zak says it's critically important to understand trust.
Prof. ZAK: Of all the things economists have looked at to understand why countries are rich or poor, trust is like the big gun that we've been searching for. The effect of trust at affecting rates of economic growth is substantial compared to everything else economists have looked at.
SPIEGEL: And not just economic growth. Without trust, he says, societies falter in all kinds of ways. Trust, Zak believes, is central.
Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.
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