The problem with the moral molecule idea is that it turns science—messy, complex, frustrating as it is—into a tidy fable. It’s a bit too … well … TED-dy. It not only tells people what they want to hear but also makes them feel delightfully subversive for understanding the secret simplicity of the world. One molecule underlies morality? Seems far-fetched, but not impossible. Hugs can change the world? Everyone likes hugs! We can counter our imps of the perverse by breathing in the right molecule? Yahtzee!
But these bold words are not backed by equally bold evidence. Oxytocin hype might be storming the heavens, but oxytocin science is still finding its footing. Early studies certainly bathed the hormone in a shiny glow, but later ones uncovered a darker side. The “love hormone” fosters trust and generosity in some situations but envy and bias in others, and it can produce opposite effects in different people. A more nuanced view of oxytocin is coming to light—one that’s inconsistent with the simplistic “moral molecule” moniker.