Thursday, June 02, 2005

Oxytocin, the conman's friend?

Today, Nature has published (abstract, editor's summary) a paper documenting Oxytocin's role in increasing an individual's willingness to accept risk in interpersonal interactions (e.g. approaching strangers). I've seen this discovery trumpeted all over the place, with most commentators decrying in concerned tones the harm that this could do in the hands of malfactors (conmen, retailers, ...). For what they are worth, here are some alternate viewpoints. From New Scientist:
But could it be used to con people? Kosfeld doubts it, because it takes nearly an hour for the hormone to reach the brain. Nor would it be easy to make people “sniff” something unfamiliar, and it is not known whether it would work through a spiked drink.
(Kosfeld is one of the paper's authors.) These seem to me like impediments to trivial exploitation, things that could be overcome with a little effort. More cause for optimism appears in news @ nature:
So does that mean it could be pumped into the air in department stores by unscrupulous salespeople, turning us all into soft targets?

Perhaps, but it seems a trifle extravagant, says Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Modern advertising already uses tricks to get us to trust a brand that probably make us boost our own oxytocin levels. "It lures you in with images of wonderful landscapes or sex, and it probably works in exactly the same way," says Damasio.
(Damasion is not one of the paper's authors.) We already live with communicators' attempts, on a daily basis, to persuade us through linking euphoric states in ourselves to what they are attempting to sell us. This is perhaps just more of the same. Given that oxytocin is already cheap and widely available, I suspect that we are going to start hearing about "field research" on this in the not-too-distant future.