Oxytocin Encourages People to Think More About the Group, Less About Themselves

It’s not that oxytocin makes people act in a good or bad way, just in a way that best serves the interests of their people

Photo: slalit

Oxytocin is often called the "love hormone," and some studies have implicated it in making people act morally. New research, however, shows that these interpretations miss the mark. Oxytocin doesn't encourage the good or bad side of a person to come out; it inspires her to act in the interests of the larger group, The Scientist reports. And if that means breaking a few rules along the way, oxyotcin helps convince a person that those rules are meant to be broken.

Here's The Scientist on what was previously known about the hormone: 

Decades of animal studies have shown that oxytocin is involved in social behavior, cementing the bond with monogamous voles and between ewes and lambs. Early human experiments linked the hormone to human behaviors like trust and emotional sensitivity, earning it nicknames such as “love hormone” or “cuddle chemical.”

But recent studies have shown that oxytocin has a dark side. Depending on the context, it can hinder trust, reduce cooperation, or trigger negative feelings like envy and schadenfreude. In 2011, de Dreu found that the hormone could make people biased toward others from their own ethnic or cultural group.

In this new study, researchers recruited 60 volunteers, who either inhaled a placebo or a snuff of oxytocin, The Scientist describes. Then, they were asked to break into teams of three and play a game. They tossed a coin, predicted the outcome and recorded whether they had guessed correctly—which would determine whether they received a monetary prize that would be divided between the players. 

Basically, the study found that everyone is dishonest. Those who sniffed the placebo reported guessing correctly 67 percent of the time—an unlikely outcome, when each guess has 50-50 chance of being right. Those who took the oxytocin were even more likely to cheat, reporting guessing correctly a whopping 80 percent of the time.

But when the team re-ran the experiment, this time making the monetary award only apply to single players rather than the group, that difference disappeared. People who had taken the oxytocin were no more or less inclined to lie than those who had taken the placebo, The Scientist reports. 

Still, like most biological phenomena, oxytocin's effects are not totally straight-forward. Here's The Scientist with some of the study's more subtle findings: 

Even then, he and Shalvi found that the hormone’s effects varied depending on the situation. It had no apparent influence on the volunteers’ behavior when nothing was at stake, or when they stood to lose money. In the latter case, the oxytocin-sniffers under-reported their correct guesses just as often as did the volunteers that inhaled the placebo. [Carston] De Dreu suggested that humans show such a strong aversion to loss that oxytocin has very little bearing on behavior in this context.

Overall, though, the researchers think they have a better understanding of what oxytocin does and does not do when it comes to impacting human behavior. “Oxytocin is causing a more general shift from self-interest to group-interest," the researchers told The Scientist. "It’s simplistic and wrong to call oxytocin a ‘moral’ molecule.”

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