Stay up to date on everything mediation!

Subscribe to our free newsletter,
"This Week in Mediation"

Sign Up Now

Already subscribed No subscription today

Trust: A Simple Question Of Oxytocin

by Phyllis Pollack
February 2010

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Phyllis  Pollack


       Trust – for a mediator, this is a very important issue.  At the beginning of  each mediation, a mediator must gain and build the trust of the parties. If the parties do not trust the mediator, they will place no value in the assistance she provides to facilitate a resolution.  Her services and presence will be useless.


      Well, it seems that “trust” is nothing more than a chemical response.  In an article entitled “The Neurobiology of Trust”  by Paul J. Zak published in the June 2008 edition of the Scientific American, the author describes experiments conducted by researchers to determine how we decide to trust someone.  This research  showed “… that an ancient and simple molecule in the brain – oxytocin –plays a major role in the process.”  Id. at 88.  Oxytocin is a short protein or peptide which serves as a neurotransmitter or signaling molecule.  Somehow, oxytocin facilitates cooperation – which requires trust.  Id. at 89.


      To test this, researchers developed an experiment called the “trust game.”  In this experiment, each participant is given $10 for agreeing to participate.  Then the participants are randomly assigned into pairs, although they will have no direct communication with each other.  In each pair, one participant is designated “Subject 1” while the other is designated “Subject 2.”  Then a computer asks Subject 1 if she wishes to send some of her $10 to Subject 2.  The amount sent by Subject 1 is, in reality, tripled in the account for Subject 2 so that if Subject 1 decides to send $2, the account for Subject 2 will contain $6 + the initial $10 deposit or $16 total.


      Then, the computer asks Subject 2 if she wishes to return some of the money to Subject 1, advising that Subject 2 is not required to send any money back and that her identity will remain undisclosed.  If Subject 2 does decide to send some money back, only  that actual amount   is returned; it is not tripled.


       Immediately, after making these decisions, the participants’ blood was tested for oxytocin levels.  ( Id. at 90-91).


      Pointing out that the consensus “. . .among experimental economists is that the initial transfer measures trust, whereas the return transfer gauges trustworthiness” (Id. at 91), the researchers found “that being trusted by Subject 1s would induce an oxytocin rise and that those who received greater sums from subjects would experience the greatest increases.”  Id.  In fact, “. . .when people were shown greater trust in the form of more money, their brains released more oxytocin.”  (Id).  The researchers also found “. . .that Subject 2s with high levels of oxytocin were more trustworthy – that is, they sent more money back to Subject 1s who had trusted them.  Receiving a sign of trust appears to make people feel positive about strangers who have trusted them.”  (Id at 91).


       In short,


        “Oxytocin constitutes a positive side of personal interactions;  it literally      feels good when someone seem to trust you, and this recognition motivates you to reciprocate.”  (Id at 92).


      Concomitantly, distrust causes a chemical reaction which in men will cause aggression.  That is, “men have an aggressive response to being distrusted.”  (Id).   Women do not like being distrusted either, but their response is a bit “cooler” than those of men.  (Id at 94-95).


      So. . .how does this relate to mediation and resolving disputes. . ..  Simple!  To gain someone’s trust, one must give something of value (which could include giving of herself) so that the other person will deem her trustworthy, by reciprocating and giving something back.  This “trust game” applies not only to the mediator but to the parties themselves.  If the parties “trust” each other and/or deem the other as “trustworthy”, they will find it easier to settle their dispute.  So, they, too, should play the “trust game”; one party giving something to the other,  (including  giving of herself) so that the other party deems her trustworthy by reciprocating and giving something back.


      Thus it seems that our decision whether to trust someone is nothing more than a chemical response based on the level of oxytocin in our brain!


       . . .Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

Email Author

Additional articles by Phyllis Pollack