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Susan Kuchinskas Headshot

Oxytocin Helps Us Move From Tribe to Community

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In his inaugural address, President Obama expressed the hope that "the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve." Yes, let's hope so. But how do we go from hoping for it to making it a reality? As a society, we may need to learn to trust each other again.

That won't be easy. We've seen banks use taxpayer bailouts to bankroll fancy offices and private jets. We've seen a former governor try to sell a Senate seat. We've seen how mortgage companies sold consumers on loans they couldn't pay back, and we've seen retirement pensions wither after investment banks siphoned off profits and left them holding a bag of toxic debt.

We often have difficulty trusting each other as well. As a result, we huddle together in our tribes of race, religion, class or income. Tribalism -- which can be defined as a deep and emotional sense of affinity for those in our group -- has a dark side: distrust for those not in our group. Now, we're asked to come together, to work as one, to become one single tribe.

As much as our minds might acknowledge and honor diversity, any such diversity -- be it race, sexual orientation, faith etc. -- activates very different responses in our brains. In prehistoric times, fearing or mistrusting others was a survival tactic.

Today, trust is just as instinctive, just as non-rational. It's a habit that can be broken by experience, and can be learned again. The ability to trust seems to lie in the same brain circuits that handle love, friendship and generosity. It's produced by oxytocin, the brain chemical that's also responsible for love.

Our brains release oxytocin in social situations where we trust and love. Oxytocin also acts as a signal that it's okay to trust a stranger. This response is based on whether this stranger's actions resemble those of members of our tribe, as well as those of other friendly strangers. This explains why we're more likely to trust someone who seems like us.

Trust isn't a state; it's a step-by-step process. If a stranger makes eye contact, we might smile. If she or he smiles back, we may hold out our hand. As you and we trade gestures, facial expressions and tones of voice, we become more attuned. And once we've smiled at one stranger, we're more likely to smile at the next one. Each tiny interaction builds trust by getting the oxytocin flowing. Similarly, a 2006 survey found that a trusting environment is not only good for people, but also good for business. Research firm Frost & Sullivan surveyed executives at 946 international companies of all sizes, and found that 36 percent of their company's performance was due to employees' ability to collaborate. The level of collaboration had its biggest effects where it mattered most: profitability, employee productivity and customer satisfaction.

Herein lies the key to becoming a more trusting, more unified society: Practice. We will need to exercise our brains to approach each other with openness to connection. Each baby step -- eye contact, a smile, a handshake -- helps rebuild the oxytocin response. Take one of these steps today!

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