Oxytocin may increase social prejudice and racism

As scientists take an ever more closer interest into the workings and effects of oxytocin, it was inevitable that a ‘darker side’ of the supposed love hormone would emerge.  A new study appears to have confirmed earlier research which suggested that oxytocin might increase the ‘in-group/out-group’ mentality.  This time, the researchers looked at the effect that oxytocin might have on a very ancient and disturbing human form of the trait – racism.  Using the implicit association psychological test, the Dutch research team found that their countrymen were more likely to associate both Germans and muslims with negative words if they had taken a dose of oxytocin spray, rather than a placebo.

Writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade put it as follows :

As oxytocin comes into sharper focus, its social radius of action turns out to have definite limits. The love and trust it promotes are not toward the world in general, just toward a person’s in-group. Oxytocin turns out to be the hormone of the clan, not of universal brotherhood. Psychologists trying to specify its role have now concluded it is the agent of ethnocentrism.

You can read an excellent interpretation of the study’s results here.

Oxytocin increases trust, but not gullibility

A Belgian study into the effects of oxytocin appear to indicate that concerns over the potential for politicians and buisnesses to exploit the trusting properties of the hormone may be overstated.  The team, working from the Catholic University of Louvain, appear to have demonstrated that oxytocin increases trust without increasing outright gullibility.  In other words, oxytocin only works in certain situations and contexts, namely when the person has already reason to belive that another person is reliable and trustworthy.

The participants were paired up with a computer and virtual partners, some of whom appeared to be reliable (the type to share the money) and some who appeared unreliable (those likely to keep it all for themselves).

Compared to participants who were given the placebo, those who received the oxytocin offered more money to the computer and the reliable partners. However, those in the oxytocin group were no more likely than those who received the placebo to share money with a seemingly unreliable partner.

Oxytocin increases trust, not gullibility

Oxytocin’s double edged sword

Whilst the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin has been well documented to promote bonding and trust between people, a new study suggests that it may also play a role in the ‘in-group/out-group’ mentality that reaches it’s sharpest focus on the battle field.  Researchers at the University of Amsterdam have found that volunteers given oxytocin nasal spray bonded and became much more protective of people seen as belonging to their own group, but grew far more hostile and aggressive to those perceived as outsiders.

Dr Carsten De Dreu, of the University of Amsterdam, said that the phenomenon was known as “parochial altruism” or “tend and defend”.

This meant that boosted levels of oxytocin produced “in-group love” and “out-group aggression”, he said.

Dr De Dreu, who published the findings in Science, said: “Oxytocin is a double edged sword. It makes you kinder to your group but more aggressive to those outside.”

Source : Love Hormone Oxytocin helps soldiers like each other and hate the enemy

Women and the dangers of sex and oxytocin

A study published recently in the Journal of Theoretical Biology warned that women seeking committed males should avoid having sex on the first date.  The reason?  The rush of Oxytocin released into the female brain after sex can trick her into bonding too early with the man, before she has had a chance to weigh up his suitability as a long term mate.

More about the study linking sex, oxytocin and bonding ..

Oxytocin and ethical issues over its possible uses

Oxytocin is appearing so often in the media of late, and getting everybody from scientists to entrepreneurs excited, is because of the power it might have to change both individuals and perhaps even society itself.  An easily manufactured, in fact naturally produced, substance that has the potential to make anyone who comes into contact with it more trusting of other people.  A possible transformative cure for children blighted with autism or adult suffering the mental torture of social phobia, perhaps even conditions such as schizophrenia.  On the other hand, the potential for misuse of such a drug hardly needs to be spelled out.  When you consider the lengths and costs that politicians and businesses go to make the voter or consumer ‘trust them’, then you can already hear them itching to get their hands on this stuff.

On a wider scale, if oxytocin does indeed live up to its present hype, it could perhaps generate social and cultural change on a scale even greater than that reputably triggered by the widespread use amongst young people of the original ‘love drugs’, such as acid and LSD, in the 60’s.  A drug that could be used by a nefarious government to placate and manipulate a docile population or something truly transformative and liberating that could turn society into a lasting version of what the flower people could only dream about in the ‘summer of love’..