You Are Wired To Socialize

In 1759, a Scottish economist and philosopher, Adam Smith, published a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He postulated that generous behavior is created by our feelings of attachment to others. When we see others in distress, it creates a bond, a mutual sympathy. It may seem like common sense today, but it was a big deal back then. It went against the notion of self-interest and the survival of the fittest. It suggested that good social behavior is part of our nature.

The Trust Game

The Trust Game is a standard research tool in the fields of economics and sociology. The participants automatically get a certain reward, let’s say $10, just for showing up. Imagine you are one of them. You already got your $10, but you can get more. A computer will randomly select one of the other participants and ask them whether they would transfer a portion of their $10 to another random participant. Let’s say it would be you. During the transfer, the money triples. So if the participant transfers $2, you will receive $6. So now, you have $16, and the donor has $8. You don’t know who sent you the money, but you know the rules. You also know that he or she sent it to you expecting that you will reciprocate. Even if you send only $3 back, you will be both ahead. You will have $13, and the original donor will have $11. What will you do?

There is no social pressure. No one knows that it was you who got the money. You can walk away with your $16. And now imagine that the donor decided to transfer all their money to you. You would get triple again, meaning $30. Add your original $10, and you have a tidy sum. If you transferred half of these $40 back to the donor, you would both have $20. Win-win for both. But would you do it? If both sides behaved rationally, this is the best scenario for both. But people don’t behave rationally, right? It is a question of trust. Can the donor trust you enough that you will send some money back? They are taking a huge risk by sending you $10. They may end up with nothing.

Paul J. Zak ran the Trust Game experiment to measure how people felt during the game and how their feelings impacted the amount of money transferred. As it turns out, if the original donor sent some money to the second player, they showed them a level of trust. This show of trust led to an increase in oxytocin levels of the receiving player. We like the idea that someone trusts us. It makes us feel good. The more money sent the higher oxytocin levels. And more oxytocin led to more money being sent back. When someone shows us trust, we feel good and trustworthy, and therefore we want to live up to that image and want to reward the one who has such a high opinion of us.

Enter Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a small molecule, a peptide, that can serve as a neurotransmitter and a hormone. It can send signals in the brain and carry messages in the bloodstream. When Zak started to study oxytocin, he quickly realized that it acted as a strong bonding mechanism between animals. Increasing oxytocin levels in animals’ bodies led to a higher attachment to their mates and higher tolerance of other animals. Inhibiting oxytocin led to mothers ignoring their offspring.

Researchers who studied oxytocin-deprived mice discovered that it led to the loss of social memory. Blocking oxytocin caused the mice to forget their old pals. Once the oxytocin was again injected into mice brains, they reacquired their social skills and started to mingle with other mice again. Oxytocin helps to care about others. In male voles and mice, oxytocin and vasopressin lead to closer bonding with their mate, monogamous behavior, as well as willingness to protect their offspring.

Zak points to an experiment when the researchers let two participants play the Ultimate Game. It was a version of the Trust Game when only the donor gets $10 but can’t keep the whole sum. They need to share at least some of it with the receiver. And then the receiver needs to agree to the split, or no one gets anything. You would think that offering even $1 by the donor to the receiver will be accepted as each participant would get at least something. But that wasn’t the case. It was seen as unfair. The receivers were willing to cause both parties to walk away empty-handed rather than being treated unfairly by the donors. They got more pleasure from knowing that the greedy donor got nothing than from getting $1 themselves. Based on these studies, if the donor offers anything less than 30 percent of the total award, it gets refused. Interestingly infusion of oxytocin caused the generosity to increase by 80 percent.

Socializing works

We are social animals. Our survival often depends on how well we fit into a group and on helping each other. Even small babies as young as eighteen months will try to help other babies in distress. Especially if these behaved nicely to them in the past. Even chimps will offer help to other chimps who are in trouble. Their social order is being supported by the act of grooming that has a calming and bonding effect. It releases oxytocin, slows heart rate, and calms the nerves. In humans, physical touch and conversations are our way of grooming each other and creating stronger social bonds. We shake hands and hug each other when meeting. We play sports together. We share stories and gossip about others. That’s how we bond. That’s how we get our oxytocin flowing.

Paul Zak shares that after years of studying oxytocin, he now warns everyone who comes to his lab that they will definitely be hugged before they leave. Even this statement of intent helps to break the ice.

Even though being warned that a hug is coming may trigger a panic in introverts, ultimately, even we can’t fight the power of oxytocin, and when the hugging happens, we will feel good. Hugs can be very soothing, create a feeling of belonging and increase generosity. Just make sure you consider the context and make sure the social trust is already there. Hugging or touching others can be seen as a violation of personal space and not welcomed when the trust is not there. Hugging your enemy won’t make you friends. It will be just weird and phony. But hugging someone you already have a positive relationship with will increase that positive bond.

Force yourself to be more social

As Jonathan Haidt notes in The Happiness Hypothesis, when introverts force themselves to be more outgoing, they usually enjoy it and benefit from it in terms of a boost to their mood. Even those who don’t believe they need social contact still benefit when interacting with others in a positive setting. Deep down, we all need to feel we belong and that there is someone who cares. Ignoring everyone in your life to pursue your happiness will lead to the exact opposite of what you are trying to do. You can’t get your oxytocin flowing sitting home alone. You need to bond with others. And you need to do it in person. Online social media are a poor substitute. So every now and then, get out and meet some real people.


What is your take on the topic? Do you believe that humans are wired to socialize? Do you think that even introverts feel better in the company of others? Can you be happy living alone on a remote island without friends and family?

Photo: geralt / Pixabay.com

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Quiet Success by Tomas Kucera


Categories: Introverts, Life

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