Ebenezer Scrooge and the Missing Oxytocin

Christmas trees are up, menorahs are lit, and “Jingle Bells” and other holiday song favorites will be on an uninterrupted loop on radio stations ’till December 25th–the holiday season is in full throttle. It’s a time of year associated with kindness and generosity, where gifts are given to family and friends, and charitable donations increase dramatically. However, for some, like the notorious miser Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, their greedy ways are unwavering. The lecture I attended last night at the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) with Paul Zak, Ph.D., “Greed: Willing to Do Anything,” suggested there could be a neurochemical explanation for Mr. Scrooge’s miserly ways.

Ebenezer Scrooge (http://www.wpclipart.com/fictional_characters/scrooge.png.html)

According to Zak, the hormone oxytocin, frequently associated with maternal and romantic bonds, is crucial to understanding why some people are greedy and others are not. He believes that it is an influential factor behind human virtue, kindness, and love.

In his lecture, Dr. Zak illustrated the relationship between oxytocin and human generosity through an experiment involving $100 split between two individuals. In this experiment, an individual (Person 1) was given $100, but only on the condition that he/she had to offer some of it to another individual (Person 2). The two people would receive the money only if Person 2 accepted Person 1’s offer. Most people offered around $50, and these offers were generally accepted, said Zak.

According to blood test results from this experiment, individuals with higher levels of oxytocin in their blood were likely to offer more money. Furthermore, after viewing a short film about a father and his terminally ill child, most people’s oxytocin levels increased and, when participating in the experiment afterwards, they tended to increase their monetary offers to Person 2. Zak argued that this response showed a positive correlation between compassion, generosity, and higher levels of oxytocin.

Oxytocin has played an important role in human survival and evolutionary history, said Zak. Humans are social creatures, and have always relied on each other for survival. Dr. Zak believes that oxytocin, as a hormonal agent of kindness and compassion, ensures that we are kind to others so that others will be kind and caring toward us.

So, besides sending ghosts, what can we do for Ebenezer Scrooge? How can we give him that oxytocin-rich holiday spirit? Oxytocin injections? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Individuals with low levels of oxytocin, like people with autism, often have too few receptors for the hormone, Zak explained. However, he did point to ongoing clinical research aimed at producing a drug that increases receptors for oxytocin. While it may still be years away, the research implications are enormous.

In the meantime, Dr. Zak suggests positive interactions with others. It’s hard to increase oxytocin levels on our own, however we can produce it in others by hugging, complimenting, or being generally amenable, he explained. In turn, we can hope that people will return the favor. With this in mind, Dr. Zak no longer shakes hands, only hugs—earning him the nickname Dr. Love.

Dr. Love’s lecture was part of an ongoing series at NYAS called “Science and the Seven Deadly Sins,” which ends in May.

– Simon Fischweicher

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