Oxytocin and The Neurology of Trust

Contents of this section are compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


One of the key neurotransmitters of the human brain is oxytocin, commonly known as the “love drug” which facilitates one’s feeling of being connected with others as well as falling in love with another person. Oxytocin is also generated in large amounts in mothers who have given birth, which then creates a powerful bond between child and mother. Of course, there are a variety of other scenarios in which oxytocin can be released such as when one pets a small puppy for example.

One of the most intriguing findings with respect to oxytocin pertains to its role in establishing trust in human relationships. The role of oxytocin in the facilitation of trust has been extensively research in the domain of business as reported by Paul J. Zak (founder and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies – he is also a professor of psychology and economics).

Studies in the early 2000s had discovered that oxytocin would be generated in rodents’ brains when they felt that another animal (or fellow rodent) was safe (or not dangerous) to approach.

Zak and his colleagues conducted a landmark study investigating links between decision-making and trust. The study entailed examining a person’s decision-making with respect to sending (or not sending) an amount of money by computer to another person, knowing that the money would then triple in amount. The sender would also be aware that the recipient may or may not share the profits. The recipient of that money can then decide as to whether they will (or will not) share the profits with the sender. The question for the recipient is: will they keep all of the cash to themselves or choose to share the spoils with the sender?

In order to examine the neurochemistry of this decision-making process, blood samples were taken from:

(a) the sender of the money – right after the decision was made to send the money

(b) receiver of the money – right after the money was sent.

The results of this study can be summarized as follows:

  • Amount of money received by the sender was correlated with the amount of oxytocin produced in the sender’s brain.
  • The amount of oxytocin produced in the sender’s brain, was predictive of how likely they would be in sharing the money (or how “trustworthy” they would be).

There are a number of other findings pertaining to oxytocin:

  • High stress levels of chronic stress (which often releases cortisol – the “stress hormone”) suppresses oxytocin which results in persons becoming more withdrawn and/or less capable of (and/or willing to) interact with other persons more effectively (and especially – empathically)
  • Persons given oxytocin in an experiment (which had a control group) were found to be more generous and trusting in an (experimental) scenario where they had the choice to send money to another person
  • The relationship between oxytocin, trust and empathy has been found to be consistent across work environments and cultures worldwide

Studies of “high-trust” work environments have been found to have the following nine characteristics:

  • Reduced Stress: In comparison to persons working in low-trust working environments, persons in high-trust work environments report of 74 percent less stress.
  • Enhanced Energy Level: Persons working in high-trust environments report of having 106 percent more energy at work in comparison to peers in low-trust work environments.
  • Enhanced Productivity: Persons in high-trust work environments exhibit 50 percent higher productivity in comparison to peers working in low-trust environments.
  • Higher Levels of Engagement: Persons who work in high-trust work environments have been found to be 76 percent more engaged than peers in low-trust settings.
  • Higher Sense of Accomplishment: Persons working in high-trust workplaces report 41 percent more often of having a sense of accomplishment at work versus their counterparts in low-trust environments.
  • Higher Job Satisfaction: Persons working in high-trust workplaces report 60 percent higher job satisfaction than their counterparts in low-trust workplaces.
  • Higher Level of Constructive Relationships: Persons in high-trust work environments were found to have 11 percent more empathy for their colleagues and would also de-personalize them 40 percent less often than persons working in low-trust workplaces.
  • Decreased cases of Burnout: Persons working in high-trust work environments are 40 percent less likely to experience burnout than persons working in low-trust environments.
  • Decreased numbers of Sick Days: High-trust works environments report of thirteen percent fewer sick days among their employees than low-trust environments.

Note how the above statistics are also relevant to learners in an academic setting. Broadly speaking, adaptive student-instructor and student-student relationships would improve the learning process. In addition, enhancing a student’s trust in their educational process is seminal to that process, which can be supported by a variety of student services outlets such as counselling, library services and other platforms for student learning support.

The nine findings also complement those made in the domain of motivational factors in learning. More specifically this pertains to the notion of the Growth Mind-Set versus the Fixed Mind-Set.

A person with the Growth Mind-Set views their abilities and personal characteristics as open to improvement/enhancement as long as they apply effort and strategy. For example, if a person with the Growth Mind-Set does not do well in an exam, they will look for ways to study more effectively (versus rote learning, procrastination and cramming) for the next exam. This is because they believe that their abilities can be improved by better study strategies, time management, etc.

A person with the Fixed Mind-Set views their abilities and personal characteristics as “fixed” (or even fixed “genetically”) and not open to improvement. More specifically, they do not believe that they can improve/enhance their learning and/or personal characteristics. For example, if a person with the Fixed Mind-Set does not do well in an exam, they will not look for alternative study strategies, mind-set, time management, stress-management etc. in order to improve their learning performance and do better in future exams.

Dweck has discussed research exploring the relationships between Mind-set and the workplace. These findings can be summarized as follows:

  • Workplace with the Fixed-mindset: employees and managers with this type of Mind-set are characterized by inefficient communication between each other and stunted progress (individually and as a collective). Managers with a Fixed Mind-set are less likely to welcome suggestions and feedback from employees and colleagues. This is largely because these types of managers view feedback, etc. as reflecting their (lack of) competence. Managers with a Fixed Mind-set also assume that people are incapable of improvement and change, which explains why they are less likely to constructively mentor their employees. Employees with a Fixed Mind-set will also downplay, discourage or even ignore adaptive (or constructive) feedback, advice and constructive suggestions emanating from fellow employees and colleagues.
  • Workplace with the Growth-mindset: employees and managers with this type of Mind-set are characterized by open, honest and direct communication between each other. Managers with a Growth Mind-set welcome suggestions and feedback from employees and colleagues. Feedback, etc. is viewed as useful for improving their performance. In a sense they see their performance as a “work in progress” with the potential for improvement. This type of (Growth Mind-set) leads to consistent progress both individually (employees and managers) and also as a collective.

As further averred to by Dweck, managers who were provided with seminars regarding the merits and applications of the Growth Mind-set benefited in two ways:

  • They became motivated in reaching out to and mentoring their employees in an adaptive and constructive manner.
  • Were more motivated in providing their employees with constructive suggestions and feedback.

Zak has identified a number of management strategies (for business and management type settings) that help induce the sense of trust (these can be measured and based on scientific research) – below are descriptions of the six of those categories (which build trust in activates by elevating oxytocin), which have adaptations with respect to mental health and student success scenarios:

[1] Recognition of Accomplishment: This entails the recognition of all types of adaptive and constructive accomplishments, such as sticking to one’s daily tasks (no matter how trivial they may seem at the time). In mental health scenarios this could entail for example the recognition or celebration of having engaged in a positive and adaptive activity such as a brisk walk (or any type of physical exercise), etc. For the learner in school this can entail recognition of having accomplished assignments on time (or even ahead of schedule), having learned a complex concept as they study and/or when they take notes, etc. The key here is not just recognizing the accomplishment but to literally “feel” that sense of accomplishment.

[2] Inducing “Challenge Stress”: This ties into the notion of promoting grit and resilience by setting challenging and realistic goals. Research has discovered that when persons are provided with concrete and realistic challenges of moderate stress, their brains produce a combination of oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin (this releases cortisol [the “stress hormone] and also plays an important role in circadian rhythms). Interestingly research in the fields of neuroeconomics and learning psychology, and motivation theory arrive at virtually the same conclusion: learners who set attainable and concrete learning (and/or task) objectives as successful in (a) achieving their objectives and (b) adaptively managing and decreasing the impact of cortisol. It would appear that the latter situation is due to the person’s sense of trust in their efficacy (ergo: oxytocin) which prevents the stress (cortisol) from dominating one’s feelings and thinking. Thus, the sense of grit involves having a sense of trust (oxytocin) in one’s abilities to cope and manage stress (cortisol) in response to challenges.

[3] Autonomy and creativity in Tasks: This involves the sense of trust (oxytocin) in completing tasks in one’s own creative and innovative ways. This involves a sense of reward (which involves dopamine) and a sense of flow (often implicating endorphins in the brain) when engaged in one’s tasks. As a learner, the person looks for learning strategies that work best for them and are also fun to engage in. With respect to mental health a client may learn of a certain new method of CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy), however they have considerable autonomy and creativity with respect to how they apply this for themselves with respect to overall wellness.

[4] “360 Degree” evaluations: Also described as “Job Crafting”, this entails a full “360 degree” evaluation when one’s task has been completed or engaged in. For example a learner sets certain learning objectives and after the task has been completed, they engage in evaluating (or even “measuring”) how effective they have been, especially by examining to see how they can improve their performance for future tasks.  Note that the key component here is a calm sense of trust (oxytocin) versus the elevated stress (cortisol) and fear/anger (norepinephrine) of harsh and critical self-judgement. With one’s mental health this often involves a sense of self-awareness of one’s emotional state and meta-cognition or “bird’s eye view” of oneself in terms of how one can find ways of engaging in more adaptive tasks and ways of thinking that can help enhance one’s overall wellness.

[5] Working to build relationships: With respect to mental health, this entails the person (and/or student) engaging in building relationships with peers as well as community (and/or campus) resources that support wellness and mental health such as counselling and health services. This overlaps somewhat with the learner who would benefit from building relationships with fellow students, which among its many benefits also can foster (or encourage) group learning/studying (which as Caplan, Choy and Whitmore have found, is a highly effective learning medium). Students also benefit by building relationships with their instructor(s) (becoming more comfortable in visiting their instructors during their office hours for clarification of course objectives, the clearing up misconceptions with their learning, class/grading policies, etc.). In addition, students in general also benefit from fostering relationships with resources on campus such as the library, learning support, accessibility services, financial aid, counselling, international education, etc.

[6] Facilitating Whole-Person growth: This the notion of seeing oneself and one’s endeavors as not confined to limited domains. More specifically, one would not see oneself as mainly defined by school (grades, GPA, etc.) and/or work (status, income, etc.) but by a variety of self-referenced (versus norm-referenced) domains.


Caplan, N., Choy, M.H., & Whitmore, J.K. (1992). Indochinese refugee families and academic achievement. Scientific American, February, Volume 266, Number 2, pp.36-42.

Dweck, C.S. (2015). The Secret to Raising Smart Kids. Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, pp.77-83.

Zak, P.J. (2019). The Neuroscience of Trust. Harvard Business Review-Special Edition, 1, pp.44-49.

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