Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Test of Trust

Some weeks ago, I met a family friend - a Welsh lady, married to a scientist, who has been living in India for many decades now. She is full of the most amazing stories and views on life and is, I feel, decidedly fey. She was telling me about how it is very easy to tell when people are lying. Apparently their eyes change; she described it as a sort of film which comes over their eyes.

Apparently, many years ago, when she mentioned this to her father in law, he decided to conduct a little experiment. He took her to a room where sat several of his clients (he was a lawyer) and asked her to write down her views on whether each person there was a crook or a straight man. Apparently she was amazingly accurate in her assessment.

I recently read a review in a science journal (PNAS, June 22, 2010, 11149-11150) where scientists discussed the correlation of testosterone and oxytocin levels (a class of hormones that are present in higher levels in males and females respectively) with the ability to trust people. Apparently, a part of the brain called the amygdala is involved in the fear and stress response and this region contains receptors for the above mentioned hormones. When stimulated (as with testosterone, the male hormone), it produces a fearful response and when blocked (as with oxtocin, higher in females) it produces a trusting sensation.

An intensive series of experiments (with a number of controls taking into account heredity, socio-economic factors, prior experiences and the investigator himself/herself) with women indicated that although no one could predict how each woman would respond, there was a corelation between scepticism and testosterone levels in certain kinds of women. When given testosterone, the women who were intrinsically sceptical of people did not change their judgement but those who were trusting became less so.

There are many causes for perception of fear and distrust, and human behaviour is not as simple to dissect out as a mechanical device. However, these results are interesting as they highlight the fact that hormones and the mind have many subtle roles to play in not just out own feelings but in how we perceive and relate to the world. It also highlights changing perception with our internal rhythm or clock, which is something we tend to neglect.

In women, testosterone levels rise just before ovulation and oxytocin levels are high during pregnancy and lactation. The scientists say this might be evolutionarily driven. How much one reads into the experiments and hypotheses is subjective, nonetheless, I think we must remember that we react to situations depending on how we feel at that particular moment. It is futile to look back (or forward) and try to gauge our reactions to situations involving emotions and personal decisions such as who to trust and what to fear.

No comments:

#Header1_headerimg { margin: 0px auto }