MDMA makes people more cooperative and trusting – but not idiotically so. At least, that's the conclusion of a study examining the effects the drug has on interpersonal behavior recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience.
MDMA – technically known as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine and informally as Molly – is the main ingredient in Ecstasy. Best known as a party drug, it releases dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin, the latter causing temporary feelings of euphoria and heightened sociability. Even, as it turns out, in cephalopods.
But it's not really understood how or why it has such an effect on social processing and cooperative behavior. So to find out, researchers from King's College London (KCL) recruited 20 healthy men and had them play a game called the Prisoner's Dilemma while hooked up to an MRI scanner.
The Prisoner's Dilemma is a two-player strategy game whereby each player has to decide whether to cooperate or compete with their opponent. If each player competes, both end the game with a low score whereas if they cooperate, both get decent points – making cooperation the mutually beneficial strategy. However, just to throw a spanner in the works, if player 1 chooses to compete and player 2 chooses to cooperate, player 1 nabs all the points while player 2 is left empty-handed.
For the experiment, the volunteers – some of whom had been given 100 milligrams of MDMA and others a placebo – were made to think that they were playing against real people via a computer. In actual fact, they were playing against pre-programmed computer responses that had been designed to "perform" in a trustworthy or untrustworthy manner.
While MDMA did appear to make the volunteers more forgiving and cooperative, this magnanimous behavior was only awarded to players they judged trustworthy, ie the players who took the cooperative strategy much more often than the competitive strategy. This, the researchers say, suggests that MDMA may make you more trusting but it does not make you particularly gullible.