Oxytocin, trust and why we fall for psychopaths

Invariably, once we realize we’ve been conned by a psychopath, this person has lied to us from the very beginning, and we fell for all of it, we ask why? Why did we believe? Why did we trust?

The short answer is that we did what we, as social animals, are biologically designed to do. Human beings have evolved over millennia to live in community, and trust is the glue that holds us together.

I just finished reading The Moral Molecule the source of love and prosperity, by Paul J. Zak. Zak spent 10 years researching a brain chemical called oxytocin and its role in human behavior. He says oxytocin inspires trust; trust is connected to morality; and morality is connected to the survival of the human race.

The video above gives an overview of the points he makes in his book. Zak briefly refers to psychopaths in the video, and the discussion about this personality disorder in his book isn’t much longer. I’m going to extrapolate from his work to discuss the role that oxytocin probably plays in why psychopaths do what they do, and why we respond the way we do.

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin is both a neurotransmitter, sending signals within the brain, and a hormone, carrying messages in the bloodstream. It plays a huge role in pair bonding, especially for monogamous mammals. It has long been associated with sex, childbirth and breastfeeding.

Research now shows that both men and women release oxytocin, although women release far more. The substance is integrally involved with love and empathy. An article in Scientific American describes oxytocin as nature’s “love glue.”

Be mine forever: Oxytocin may help build long-lasting love, on

Intimacy and sex trigger the release of oxytocin. So do feelings of empathy. An easy way to spark the release of oxytocin in people is to give them a hug. Another way is to show that you trust them. Conversation creates a sense of community, which builds trust, which leads to oxytocin release.

In his book, Zak describes a behavioral feedback loop based on oxytocin:

Oxytocin generates the empathy that drives moral behavior, which inspires trust, which causes the release of more oxytocin, which creates more empathy.

But it’s not all love and roses. Oxytocin also helps people know when to be wary. Zak says, “oxytocin maintains the balance between self and other, trust and distrust, approach and withdrawal.”


Testosterone is a hormone associated with aggression, motivation and drive, especially sex drive. Men have more testosterone than women, and young men have twice the level of testosterone as older men. Testosterone is elevated in all psychopaths, both male and female. Hold that thought.

Testosterone is the opposite of oxytocin. In The Moral Molecule, Zak says:

Testosterone specifically interferes with the uptake of oxytocin, producing a damping effect on being caring and feeling. (Page 83 emphasis by Zak.)

Zak also talks about a high-octane version of testosterone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which stimulates areas of the brain associated with aggression. Zak writes:

DHT’s affect on the brain is about five times larger than testosterone’s. It not only unleashes aggression, but also increases dopamine, which makes the aggression feel good. (Page 84)

Here are a few more points about testosterone:

High-testosterone males divorce more often, spend less time with their children, engage in competitions of all types, have more sexual partners (as well as learning disabilities), and lose their jobs more often. (Page 90)

Winning too big too often can have a corrosive effect by bathing an individual in testosterone. Always coming out on top, consistently and over time, can reinforce some of the more obnoxious stereotypically male behaviors associated with the hormone. (Page 94)

Administering testosterone has been shown to actually inhibit people’s ability’s to pick up the social cues that eye contact conveys. (Page 95)

Putting this together: Psychopaths have excess testosterone. Testosterone blocks caring and feeling, increases aggression, inhibits the ability to pick up on social cues and correlates with the type of behavior we’ve all seen in psychopaths.

Oxytocin receptors

Oxytocin works by connecting with “oxytocin receptors,” which are present in the mammary glands, uterus and in the central nervous system. However, Zak says that “5 percent of any population lack the oxytocin receptors necessary to bond and behave morally without external reinforcement.” Of course, 5 percent is remarkably close to official estimates for antisocial personality disorder 4 percent of the population.

Zak explains that oxytocin receptors need to be stimulated, starting when humans are babies, in order for them to grow. If the receptors are not stimulated by love and attention early on, they fail to develop, which contributes to a lack of empathy. In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Zak says that psychopaths seem to lack oxytocin receptors.

Can one chemical be the basis of all morality? on

In The Moral Molecule, Zak writes:

Psychopaths can have incredible social competence on the cognitive level the trouble is that they simply don’t care bout anyone but themselves. Their lack of empathy allows them to treat others as objects, and their cognitive skill enables them to get away with it. (Page 128)

Oxytocin and the psychopathic experience

Psychopaths do not form authentic, caring love bonds with other people. But they are very good at pretending that they do.

When psychopaths target us for romantic relationships, they shower us with attention and affection. They spend a lot of time talking with us, and conversation builds trust. They say and do things to indicate that they trust us, and we should trust them. They tell stories about themselves designed to appeal to our empathy. They rush us into emotional, physical and sexual intimacy.

All of this causes the release of oxytocin in our brains, which is absolutely normal. Because of the oxytocin, we feel calm, trusting, empathetic and content. We especially feel trusting of the person who caused this reaction in us the psychopath.

The psychopath, however, does not have the normal number of oxytocin receptors. Plus, the psychopath has elevated testosterone, which blocks the release of oxytocin. Therefore, he or she does not experience the effects of the oxytocin, and does not feel trust or empathy.

Researchers are finding many biological components of psychopathy, including the problems with oxytocin. But the oxytocin system operates just fine in many of us who have been targeted by psychopaths. So they love bomb us; we don’t know they are lying; we respond as human are intended to respond to displays of trust and affection, which releases oxytocin.

Psychopathic seduction hijacks the normal human bonding system. That’s an important reason why we get hooked.

If you’d like to know more about oxytocin and how it is supposed to work, read The Moral Molecule, by Paul J. Zak.

The Moral Molecule — the source of love and prosperity, is available on



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111 Comments on "Oxytocin, trust and why we fall for psychopaths"

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I don’t want to belabour a point but I left a comment here asking for a link to a reputable study that shows that psychopaths have high testosterone levels. Otherwise it’s just an urban myth.

Very good article.

“Psychopathic seduction hijacks the normal human bonding system.” This is the part that still leaves me feeling so confused. Its difficult for me to understand how/why someone could intentionally target an empathetic, caring person in a romantic relationship–just to emotionally obliterate me. Its pure aggression just for aggression sake. Its evil…

uwfrog there is alot of good information here.

uwfrog….their motivations for interacting with other’s are totally different than ours. Understanding their motivations can help minimize some of the dissonance we feel when we wake up to the hurt, and try to make sense by connecting the dots. In the case of sociopaths, when we connect the dots (like we would in analyzing any other situation) they don’t lead us to any normal sense of understanding. In fact, we can feel even more hurt, stupid, and confused. Because we just cannot make sense of what has happened.

This is because they are not motivated by the instinct to build relationships. They are motivated by personal gain. Period. Everything they do is to gain something, not to give something.

Even when they give something it is to obtain a future gain, or gain the immediate attention that pretending to be generous provides them.

Things they can gain: Sex, money, prestige, image management, material goods, escape, etc….

When I think back on the sociopathic behaviors I have witnessed they now register to me like a very intricate game. That all the players in the game are not real to the sociopath, and are considered ‘pawns’.

Their motivations certainly are different from ours.

slimone This is a great explanation of spath behavior.

again, a great explanation of spath behavior.

I am 1 week into the devastation on my experience. Currently I’m going back and forth on whether I believe he is a true sociopath. I was lied to from the very beginning of our relationship. I have read the book psychopath free in 2 days and 24 of the 30 red flags stick out in my mind about him. I go between is this really the truth of what he is to did he really love me. I keep replaying the scenarios that made me believe he loved me. I’m anxious today. I’m debating on calling or texting him. I feel so alone like the people close to me really don’t understand what I’m going through. I feel empty every morning I wake up. I don’t know what to believe….

A very good read.

Other activities can also release oxytoxin- being with friends.

Excellent talk.

I am new to this site, after falling for a love bombing married man. I literally feel like I’m stuck in a bad nightmare. This man lured and chased me down with flattery- claiming to be “stuck” in a marriage that he had to stay in for 3 kids. He claimed to be in love with me, that I was his best friend and soulmate. This fling went on for 8 months until the discard happened.

I was randomly talking to a woman I know and she advised me she was talking to this man too ( not knowing me and him did). I was blown away and went to someone I trusted- a mutual friend. And that’s where the nightmare started.

The mutual friend has been harassing me for weeks now. Claiming she is running this now and protecting his wife and kids from finding out. I have no intention to tell his wife I just want to be away from them all. The friend opened a social media page calling me a slut and whore with no mention that HE chases women, not only me. She has said I’m pathetic and my ego is hurt and to go find another boy toy. I’m beyond exhausted mentally I’ve never been in a situation like this had anyone been slandered this way?? It’s awful

Great talk. his mother was a nun before she had him. he calls psychopaths bastards. he gives an example of a psycho scam.

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