Trust the “trust hormone”? Oxytocin can increase deceit

By Christie Wilcox | March 31, 2014 4:36 pm
500px-Oxytocin.svg

Oxytocin, the “moral molecule”. Image by Calvero c/o Wikimedia Commons

Oxytocin has perhaps the best reputation of any molecule on the planet. In a culture of chemophobia where any compound is fair game for attack, oxytocin has been heralded as “The Source of Love and Prosperity“. If you listen to the tales, this “moral” molecule—the “trust hormone“—is the “most amazing molecule in the world,” and is your one-stop shop for love and happiness. All you have to do is give someone a hug, and your brain will be flooded with the magic stuff.

But as many (most notably Ed Yong) have pointed out, oxytocin isn’t the sweet compound we’re told it is. Sure, it has been associated with generosity, desire, and trust, but oxytocin has a dark side, too. It can increase envy and gloating, promote cliques, and even decrease cooperation. Now, a new study published today in PNAS adds to the molecule’s moral ambiguity: huffing oxytocin can lead to dishonest behavior if that behavior is seen as being for “the greater good”.

Amsterdam scientists Shaul Shalvia and Carsten De Dreub tested the effects of oxytocin in an experimental game set up that allowed participants to lie to benefit the group. Players sniffed either a placebo or oxytocin, then played a game where teams of three anonymous participants were asked to predict a virtual coin toss. Afterward they were told to report whether they had guessed correctly, with correct guessing resulting in more cash for everyone. All of the participants cheated, saying that they guessed right more than they really did, but those that huffed the so-called moral molecule lied more and more quickly, saying they were right a statistically-impossible 80% of the time.

However, when the experiment was repeated and the participants were told that only their own earnings would be increased, the oxytocin-smellers stopped lying more than the control group (though all of them still lied a little). When correct answers had no gains or resulted in lost money, the love drug group also didn’t differ from the placebo-sniffers. These results suggested that oxytocin only increased dishonesty when it strongly benefitted the group.

Instead of promoting ethical behavior in all circumstances, oxytocin shifts an individual’s focus from self to group interests, whether or not that leads to higher overall immorality. “Oxytocin boosts group-serving behavior, rather than adherence to general moral codes,” explain the authors.

These results add to a growing body of literature that suggest oxytocin is a very complex chemical, and definitely not the saintly compound it’s been purported to be. While in certain situations it can increase behaviors we think of as positive—bonding, cooperation and trust—it can also cause bad behaviors, from lying to prejudice. What ultimately matters, say the authors, “is whether such moral code-breaking serves those one cares about and the group one belongs to.”

“These findings highlight the role of bonding and cooperation in shaping dishonesty, providing insight into when and why collaboration turns into corruption.”

 

Citation: Shalvia S. & De Dreub C. (2014). Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty, PNAS, DOI:

MORE ABOUT: Neuroscience, Oxytocin
  • http://www.foresta-gump.ca Donna Thompson

    Interesting study, I would have liked to have been a participant, to see if I told the truth under the influence of oxytocin. Normally I tell the truth.
    This is such a fascinating study that it influenced me the desire to sample oxytocin. Now is that good or bad? It sounds better than consuming marijuana!

  • Darin Dickson

    The altruistic hormone

  • Lem

    Oxytocin is just a chemical. It does not define what’s moral or not. It only does what it is supposed to do. It is us, humans, that add adjectives before the Oxytocin word.

  • kulkarnic46

    Inhaling / sniffing Amyl Nitrosum Mother Tincture ( = a homeopathic medicine ) frequently – then taking Gorse (= Bach Flower Remedy ) : 20 drops in warm lemon tea, 3 times a day, gives more assuring results that Oxytocin.

  • Sangreazvl13

    So basically, we are back to the beginning..where we dont understand.

  • joesantus

    Tentatively, this new study does seem to harmonize with what’s been known already about oxytocin stimulating bonding with those with whom one has social/familial contact.

    This study indicates that such bonding is substantial enough to impel “protect/benefit the person/persons/group-to-whom-it-has-bonded-me, by any means necessary” behavior. It evidences that oxytocin promotes altruism,yes, but towards the person/persons/group(/community?/society?) to which one belongs, not to others indiscriminately. Comparing the behavior of the subjects of this study to typical human behavior through history, the results of this study are not surprising but perhaps explanatory.

    If “discriminate altruism” is in fact the effect of oxytocin, then, heheheh, the trick to fostering world peace and universal affection will be some method of establishing oxytocin bonds uniformly among everyone with everyone on the planet! lol

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Paula Carnes

    People who lie to help a friend are not necessarily doing a bad thing. Think of those who hid Jews in their attics and lied about it. What I would like to see is a study to determine if higher oxytocin levels distort rational judgement.

  • Don’t Even Try It!

    My God, get that stuff away from bho!

  • Alan

    Also don’t forget that romance and love of bonding involves a whole lot of preening and flattery to be successful. These are both essentially a form of lying. Without such “white” lies, the human race would have gone extinct a long time ago; no one would have gotten laid, lol. Evolutionary wise, we are programmed to do it.

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About Christie Wilcox

Christie Wilcox is a science writer and PhD Student at the University of Hawaii, where she studies the protein toxins in venomous fish. She is renowned in the science blogosphere for her delicate balance of contemporary science and scientific perspective seasoned with just the right amount of wit. Her award-winning posts have been featured in The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing On Blogs four years running and landed on the pages of major media outlets including The New York Times and Scientific American. To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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