Wright-Patt to spend $1 million to test trust

Research lab focuses on measuring trust from hormone levels in blood.

“We’re not trying to build a trust-o-meter or a trust assessment tool,” James Christensen, the AFRL research psychologist leading the effort, said in an interview. “We’re not sure if it’s going to work or not, whether you can really measure trust.”

If a person’s trustworthiness can be objectively measured, it could be useful in assessing people for assignment to sensitive jobs, rather than simply relying on one person’s assessment of another, Christensen said.

Some scientists are skeptical. The experiment is designed to build on prior research involving monitoring blood levels of a naturally produced hormone called oxytocin, which has been associated with trustworthiness and female bonding with offspring. Pitocin, a synthetic form of oxytocin, is given to pregnant women to induce labor.

“I don’t think you’ll ever be able to measure how much a person trusts someone by measuring the level of oxytocin,” said Larry Young, an Emory University specialist in the biology of social behavior who has done experiments examining oxytocin’s effect on voles, small rodents.

Blood levels of oxytocin can be affected by other factors including dehydration or consuming salt, said Young, who is not involved in the Air Force study.

The work began in December, after months of preparation, and is to be concluded in September, with results to be reported internally and in professional journals.

In 2005, researchers at Claremont Graduate University in California conducted experiments tracking participants as they played “trust games” and received money payoffs for actions that could affect trust perceptions between partners in the games. The researchers concluded that perceptions of intentions of trust appeared to affect levels of circulating oxytocin.

In the Air Force project, researchers are observing participants as they go through a full day of scenarios with, first, a trusted partner, and then a stranger. Participants are asked to hide a small object in one of 10 boxes assigned to them, then are interviewed about the object’s location to determine whether they can keep the location secret or give it away.

Their heart and brain activity are monitored, along with blood levels of oxytocin monitored through an intravenous feed that draws samples of drops of blood intermittently during the day, including before and after the experiment interactions, Christensen said.

Participants are paid $21.50 per hour and can additionally earn up to $60 per decision made during the exercise. The AFRL is still enrolling participants, including through newspaper advertisements.

The experiment is set up so that a participant who “sells out” a partner can make additional money, Christensen said. That is of interest to researchers looking for fluctuations in oxytocin levels, he said.

“If you’re about to give up the secret, sell out your partner, what does that mean for your oxytocin level, your partner’s oxytocin level?” Christensen said.

Brain oxytocin levels might be a more reliable indicator, but that would require monitoring spinal fluid levels — and it is unlikely that research participants would consent to spinal taps, said James K. Rilling, an Emory researcher who has studied oxytocin’s effect on human brain activity and behavior.

Depending on the findings of the research, the military also might have to confront potential ethical issues about how much it could legitimately do to manipulate the trust levels of individuals, Young said.

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2242 or jnolan@DaytonDailyNews.com.

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