Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Downside of Oxytocin

I’m with Robert Sapolsky. I may not be as high-minded as he is, but I too cannot resist “a feeling of malicious, chortling pleasure” when I see someone or something with “a reputation for saintly purity tarnished by warts and blemishes.”

Whose reputation has recently been tarnished? Why, the pituitary hormone: oxytocin.

Oxytocin is a human binding hormone. When women climax they produce extra oxytocin. The result: they feel closer to their lovers. When women give birth their bodies produce oxytocin—presumably, the hormone facilitates childbirth. (The world itself comes from Greek words that mean: swift birth.)  Oxytocin also promotes lactation and maternal instincts.

Sapolsky does not mention that the hormone is associated with women. The male body also produces it, but oxytocin seems to be responsible for the fact that women are, supposedly, more cooperative, more caring, more loving and less competitive than men.

When certain people say that if women ruled the world there would be peace everywhere they are, in part, basing their conclusions on the power of oxytocin.

Further research has outlined some of oxytocin’s other benefits.

Sapolsky summarizes them:

Oxytocin facilitates the formation of mother/infant bonds and of male/female pair bonds. Among humans, couples who are administered oxytocin (versus a placebo) have fewer intense fights, and the men rate their partners as more attractive and spend less time looking at other women.

The hormone's reputation got even better. Studies found that oxytocin lessens stress and anxiety; fosters trust, cooperation, forgiveness and generosity; and makes people more attuned to others' emotions. True believers in oxytocin proclaimed it the "love hormone" in some scientific journals. It seemed that if oxytocin were dumped in the water supply, everyone would lie down between lions and lambs.

Think of it: science has discovered a love hormone, an empathy hormone… drop it in the water supply and the Age of Aquarius will dawn on the earth.

It won't be very long before an enterprising behavioral economist decides that we must all be forced to drink up a certain amount on a daily basis. 

But there are problems. Enough to make Sapolsky chortle.

Oxytocin makes you feel all warm and fuzzy toward members of your own group, but it increases your hostility toward those who belong to other groups. It produces xenophobia.

Uh oh!

Sapolsky is too kind to put it in these terms, but oxytocin seems to make people more racist.

When test subjects in Holland were asked whether they would push someone under a trolley to save five other people—a standard psycho text—those who were juiced on oxytocin were more likely to sacrifice someone with a foreign name.

They were happy to throw Helmut or Abdul under the trolley but would have saved Luuk or Maarten.

Uh oh!

So much for peace on earth. So much for solving all the world’s problems with biochemistry.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. Another test revealed that oxytocin is more likely to make you lie and cheat… especially when it benefits your team.

Sapolsky describes it:

Subjects were told that they were part of a team of three volunteers (with no further information about teammates). Then each person played a virtual coin-toss game, with winnings to be divided among the three. The game was a great chance to lie: Players only had to report whether they had correctly guessed outcomes beforehand. Of course, guessing yields a 50% success rate, so the higher someone scored above 50%, the more likely it was that they were cheating.

Control subjects cheated plenty, claiming an average success rate of 66%. With oxytocin, cheating rose to 79%. Moreover, oxytocin dramatically increased the number of outrageous liars. Among control subjects, 23% reported an outcome with only a one-in-a hundred chance of occurring—a success rate of more than 90%. And subjects on oxytocin? The majority made this absurd claim.

So, oxytocin makes you more loving, more caring, more peaceful and more empathetic. But it only makes you feel close to those are belong to your own social group. It makes you feel more than willing to sacrifice outsiders in favor of those who are your own, but it also makes you more likely to cheat to help your team win.

Anything to be feel like a member in good standing of the group.


Anonymous said...

A Grizzly mother is filled with love for its cubs... and hates anything or anyone who comes near out of suspicion that the cubs may be harmed.

parabarbarian said...

This is not much of a surprise. When it comes to the human body you can never do just one thing. Evolution is quite clever at making one biochemical do multiple jobs.

David Foster said...

Texan99 had some thoughts on this a few years ago:

Ares Olympus said...

So apparently oxytocin weakens our moral and rational abilities?

I just saw this TED talk recently, talking about oxytocin as a stress response of the good kind that doesn't shorten our lives.

If oxytocin is a stress reliever, and it strengthen survival skills at the cost of honest rationality and objective morality, it might still be a good trade off.

And perhaps it also explains why some women can be hold-cold in their socialization, using "tend and befriend" when they need someone (ingroup), and "cold shoulder" (outgroup) when they're done with you? Life is hard when you're the "weaker sex", without the power to fight or flight by your own agency.

Sam L. said...

So, the Dems are high on oxytocin?

Ares Olympus said...

Sam L, good question, but I'm not sure it is partisan. Tribal identity forged by oxytocin's cementing ego-expansion could help explain all in-group racial patriotism, including Aryan Nazi Germany, empirial Japan, and Southern KKK White supremacy.

They say evil thrives not because bad people act, but because good people fail to act, so if ingroup identity allows you to pardon crimes and corruption of those like you, then you're guilty too.

Its interesting to consider the more reptilian brain "fight or flight" stress response seems "lower" than the mammalian neocortex "tend and befriend", but perhaps both are triggered by unconscious instincts that have no higher morality than survival, and so we need our higher prefrontal cortex to sort truth out more objectively than our sentimental or aggressive feelings alone will allow.