If there’s any molecule that is consistently viewed through rose-tinted glasses, it’s oxytocin. This simple hormone has earned misleading but charmingly alliterative nicknames like “hug hormone”, “cuddle chemical” and “moral molecule”. Writers love to claim, to the point of absurdity, that oxytocin increases trust, generosity, cooperation and empathy, among a slew of other virtues.
But while these grandiose claims take centre-stage, a lot of careful science plods on in the background. And it shows that oxytocin affects our social interactions in both positive and negative ways, depending on the situation we’re in, or our personality and disposition. It can fuel conformity as well as trust, envy as well as generosity, and favouritism as well as cooperation. If we sniff the stuff, we might, for example, become more cooperative towards people we know, but less so towards strangers.
These lines of evidence might seem contradictory, but only if we hold the naive view that oxytocin is a chemical force for good. Instead, many scientists have suggested that, rather than some positive panacea, it’s more of a general social substance. It directs our attention towards socially relevant information – everything from facial expressions to posture – or drives us to seek out social interactions.
Now, Adam Reddon from McMaster University has found more evidence to support this idea by studying the daffodil cichlid, a beautiful African fish. When he injected them with isotocin – the fish version of oxytocin – he found that they became more responsive to social information. They were more sensitive to an opponent’s size before a fight, and they behaved more submissively when they themselves were challenged.
Update: I’ve amended this post following some harsh critical comments on the study from geneticists on Twitter, which I really should have noted while going through the paper.
Our genes can influence our behaviour in delicate ways, and these effects, while subtle, are not undetectable. Scientists can pick them up by studying large groups of people, but individuals can sometimes be sensitive to these small differences.
Consider the OXTR gene. It creates a docking station for a hormone called oxytocin, which has far-ranging effects on our social behaviour. People carry either the A or G versions of OXTR, depending on the “letter” that appears at a particular spot along its length. People with two G-copies tend to be more empathic, sociable and sensitive than those with at least one A-copy. These differences are small, but according to a new study from Aleksandr Kogan at the University of Toronto, strangers can pick up on them after watching people for just a few minutes.
Few molecules have a reputation as glowing as that of oxytocin. Often billed as the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin has been linked to virtually every positive aspect of human behaviour, including trust, social skills, empathy, generosity, cooperation, and even orgasm. And to this extensive list, we can now add racial and cultural bias.
Despite its misleading labels, oxytocin has a dark side. Just two months ago, Jennifer Bartz showed that it can make people remember their mothers as less caring and more distant if they themselves are anxious about social relationships. Carolyn H. Declerck found that oxytocin makes people more cooperative in a social game, if they had met their partner beforehand. If they played with an anonymous partner who they knew nothing about, oxytocin actually made them less cooperative. “Oxytocin does not unconditionally support trust,” she says.
Now, Carsten de Dreu from the University of Amsterdam has found that sniffs of oxytocin make us more biased towards peers from our own ethnic or cultural group, versus those from other groups. Bartz commends the new study, saying, “Along with other recent reports, [the new study] suggests that although oxytocin clearly plays a role in prosociality and empathy, the way it does this is more nuanced than previously thought. This is not entirely surprising given the complexity of human relations.”
There’s a chemical that can subtly shift your childhood memories of your own mother. In some people, it paints mum in a more saintly light, making them remember her as closer and more caring. In others, the chemical has a darker influence, casting mum as a less caring and more distant parent.
All of this becomes heavily ironic when you consider that the chemical in question – a hormone called oxytocin – is often billed as the “hormone of love”, and even marketed as “Liquid Trust”. As a new study shows, the reality is much more complicated. Describing oxytocin as the “hormone of love” is like describing a computer as a “writing tool” – it does other things too, some of which aren’t pleasant.
The social interactions that come naturally to most people are difficult for people with autism and Asperger syndrome. Simple matters like making eye contact, reading expressions and working out what someone else is thinking can be big challenges, even for “high-functioning” and intelligent individuals. Now, a preliminary study of 13 people suggests that some of these social difficulties could be temporarily relieved by inhaling a hormone called oxytocin.
The participants, who either had Asperger or high-functioning autism, experienced stronger feelings of trust, showed stronger social interactions in a simulated game, and paid more attention to socially important cues like someone else’s eyes. These results will need to be confirmed in larger studies in real-world situations, but for the moment, they’re promising.
Oxytocin is involved a myriad of emotions and social behaviours including trust, social interactions, sexual arousal, the bond between mother and child (see SciCurious’s epic oxytocin series for more). It has been linked to autism before. Autistic children have lower levels of the hormone coursing through their blood and what little there is appears to be made in an abnormal way. Some researchers are testing oxytocin as a treatment for some symptoms of autism, including repetitive behaviours, but the new results are some of the most interesting yet.