How Brain Research Can Change the Way We Develop Youth Programs

Dr. Paul Zak, professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, has taken a unique approach to the study of character and morals.  His question, basically, is “what is the biological basis for trust?”  If you are interested in hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth, his discussion of this research at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) convention from the summer of 2011 can be viewed here.

To summarize his findings, he demonstrated not only a relationship, but a cause-effect relationship between the hormone oxytocin and our willingness to trust.  Oxytocin is present in the body in very small quantities-except in the case of the late stages of pregnancy, where it prepares the mother’s body to be able to breastfeed.  Zak showed that, when people were asked to trust someone in a financial situation, those with more oxytocin in the blood were more trusting.  Furthermore, he was able to introduce oxytocin (through a nasal spray) and increase the trusting nature of people in these situations. 

Why would a hormone that allows mothers to feed their babies lead to more trust?  Perhaps there is a common thread in that both are related to creating a significant connection between people.  Oxytocin, and therefore trust, increases when connections are formed:  hugs, holding hands, prayer, weddings and even social media connections with significant others lead to more of this chemical.  Stress and testosterone are two of the biggest inhibitors of this hormone.  It is commonly cited that the one trait that successful youth share is growing up eating at the dinner table with the family most nights.  Close families are also empirically found to share in common the choice of camping for recreation, again as a family.  Maybe there is a relationship here?

Is the opposite occurring with our youth who are becoming disconnected, spending most of their time engaged in technology, sometimes shared with others, but often alone with the television, the computer, or the cell phone?  Couldn’t we expand our research to include this group, looking at oxytocin levels in our more isolated youth?

This brings me to the question, “How do we increase trust and other character building traits in our youth?”  In addition to education using Character Counts or Character Bound programs, shouldn’t we include activities that foster community and connections with others to nurture an environment, in the brain, where trust and possibly other character traits can develop?  If the chemical underpinning of trust is oxytocin, let’s make sure we have enough of it for trust to form.  Just like we make sure we have enough protein when trying to build muscles through strength training.

I don’t have these answers, but together we can explore some ideas.  What ideas can we come up with, what tactics can leaders of youth employ, to increase these connections?  Share your ideas in the comments section below, or e-mail me at  I will take your ideas and mix them with ours here at Fitness Finders so we can discuss this idea of priming the brain for character development.

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