GUEST POST: The Moral Molecule, Hugging, and Children’s Wellbeing

At first glance, The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, seems like something of a scientific thriller. The book jacket goes as far as to describe the “Moral Molecule” and the associated research as “a revolution in the science of good and evil.” However, upon closer examination, neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak’s new book has important implications for child-welfare.

In his early work, Zak tied countries’ prosperity and growth to how “trusting” societies are. He has since found that the release of the reward chemical in the brain, oxytocin, gives rise to people, including children, having greater caring, bonding, empathy – as well as trust and moral behavior.  Zak has also found an array of behaviors that cause a release of oxytocin – including hugs.  In my view he charts an explanation for why children who have deprived childhoods behave the way they do: their oxytocin receptors may have been damaged by the absence of hugs and other vital human contact and affection.  Although further research is needed, Zak’s work provides a possible neuroscience-based explanation for attachment disorders that psychologists and child development experts have long observed in children who have missed human touch, especially in their early years.

In my experience as an alumnus of an orphanage and research on orphanages generally, I have seen that many modern-day children’s homes actively discourage hugging (or forbade hugging altogether). Others teach “appropriate hugging,” which limits physical contact by administering hugs from the side.  These policies were created to protect children from inappropriate behavior and contact, including sexual abuse. However, based on Zak’s long-running work in the burgeoning field of “neuroeconomics,” there is a (potentially) strong argument to be made on how policies restricting hugging and other physical contact in daycare centers, schools, children’s homes, and even sports teams can limit the release of oxytocin, which could in turn limit the potential improved behavior associated with oxytocin. It is imperative that we design policies that both protect children and also recognize the important benefits of hugging and other affectionate contact.  As it is, widely publicized cases of pedophilia, which will likely drive interest in additional restrictive hugging policies, can cause harm for children far removed from pedophiles’ direct victims.

Moving forward, Paul J. Zak’s work has a wide range of implications for child welfare that ought to be considered in upcoming research and future policies.

This blog post was written by Richard McKenzie, the Walter B. Gerken Professor Emeritus of Enterprise and Society at The Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. McKenzie is also a member of the OVC Wellbeing Advisory Board and an alumnus of Barium Springs Home for Children where he grew up in the 1950s.

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