Oxytocin, a brain chemical that has been dubbed “the trust molecule,” is making an appearance in politics. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak suggests that oxytocin, a molecule that fosters feelings of trust between individuals, is the “chemical elixir that creates bonds of trust … in politics and in society at large.” Zak found a correlation between oxytocin and trust by spraying oxytocin into the nasal cavities of his research subjects and measuring whether they became more trusting (as judged by how they performed in a test that involved sharing real money) as the amount of oxytocin in their blood increased. As oxytocin levels increased, so did measures of trust.
Zak’s study, however, may have dangerous consequences in this election season. An oxytocin nasal spray that facilitates trust could be a powerful weapon wielded by the 2012 presidential field to manipulate the votes of large swaths of Americans. It is only a matter of time before our presidential candidates will be getting voters hopped up on oxytocin to gain their trust, and it is clear that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will be the likely culprits, while Ron Paul will abstain.
Just look at President Obama’s message this week to students at the University of Iowa. Obama implored Congress to keep the interest rates on federal student loans from doubling to 6.8%, a move also supported by Romney. Both Romney and Obama are competing for young votes and see the issue of student loans as key to winning this constituency’s trust, even while keeping the interests rates at 3.4% will end up driving up the costs of higher education for the very students they are trying to help. Just think if Obama and Romney could instead gain this trust by passing a little oxytocin gas? They could appeal to voters AND avoid supporting a bad economic policy.
Paul, in a speech he gave this week at the University of Texas to 4,000 students, showed that he will not use oxytocin to build trust among voters. Paul made clear that he seeks to have voters place their trust not in him, but in themselves. By making it clear that the government should have no role in an individual’s decision to smoke marijuana or drink raw milk, or in setting monetary policy, or in committing its citizens to undeclared and unconstitutional wars, Paul emphasizes the importance of letting individuals decide what action is best for them.
OK, so maybe this prediction belongs more in the realm of dystopian fiction like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four than it does in serious political discussion. The day is (hopefully) far away when presidential candidates can spray oxytocin at voters to gain their trust. After all, as Zak points out, oxytocin inhalers aren’t even available to Americans right now.
Still, politicians like Obama and Romney want voters to trust that they know best. The problem, however, is that politicians can never know enough to make the best policies for individuals, not because they are stupid, but because there is simply too much information to know. This complexity results in policies that create many unintended consequences, such as Obama and Romney’s political calculation that will likely raise the costs of higher education, not lower it.
The better alternative is a candidate, like Paul, that recognizes the proper role for government, based on awareness that politicians are ultimately limited in what they can do to help the many different people in America. This realization, which is as humble as it is brilliant, makes Paul stand out among a sea of other politicians that think they know best.