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Why dousing yourself in ‘trust me’ spray could have unintended consequences

The process of turning scientific breakthroughs into business initiatives is a central part of the debate on science funding. One company that seems to have done this with impressive speed is the manufacturer of LiquidTrust.

Its retailers refer to a body of research published in the last few years to support their claims for this wonderful spray. Applying LiquidTrust in the morning, before important meetings, or in the evening creates an ‘atmosphere of trust’ around their customers. They advise business people to spray it around their desk and conference room to gain an ‘instant competitive edge’, and if you are a single man it will help you get women who are ‘out of your league’.

But before you buy a bottle (a snip at £34.95), how does the spray work?

The magic ingredient in LiquidTrust is oxytocin, which is sometimes called the cuddle hormone. It facilitates lactation and childbirth in women, and has a role in regulating maternal behaviour. It is also released at orgasm in both men and women, and more recently it has been found to play a part in promoting generosity and trust.

The first experiment which showed that oxytocin increased trust in humans was conducted in Switzerland in 2005. The researchers gave volunteers a dose of the hormone and then asked them to play an investment game. In this game, participants are granted a sum of money. They can keep the cash and walk away, or they can give some of it to a trustee. In the hands of the trustee, the money is always tripled. However, the trustee chooses whether to give any of the money (including the original principal) back to the investor or to keep it all himself. The decision whether to invest any money is therefore driven by whether or not you have faith in the trustee. In the experiment, participants who had taken oxytocin gave substantially more of their money to the trustee than those who were given a placebo, showing that the hormone made them more trusting.

In this experiment, the participants received a concentrated dose of oxytocin in a nasal spray. As potential dates and business partners have to trust you pretty thoroughly before they will snort something out of a bottle you give to them, the makers of LiquidTrust provide it in a perfume-like spray to be applied to your clothes. The idea is that the hormone will waft undetected into the nostrils of those around.

There are obvious ethical issues around the use of such a spray (would you want to trust somebody who uses it), but before unscrupulous scientists get some in preparation for meetings in which they explain why their research programmes ought to be expanded rather than cut, it seems to me that there are a couple of flaws in the evil plan.

Firstly, it’s not obvious that users can administer a large enough dose just by walking past someone or leaning over them. But secondly, and with a beautiful irony, anybody spraying oxytocin onto their shirt several times a day is receiving a far larger exposure to the chemical than those around them. So if you meet an extremely gullible person, there’s a chance that they’re wearing LiquidTrust, whether or not the spray works.


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