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Oxytocin: A Love/Hate Relationship

03 Apr

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It looks like oxytocin is a double edged sword. I’ve written before about how oxytocin is the bonding hormone but it also seems to promote behavior that’s not so becoming, like collectivism and other sorts of in-group bias. Of course, collectivism is correlated with conservatism, religiosity, and racism.

On the oxytocin promotes ethnocentrism front:

Abstract:

Grounded in the idea that ethnocentrism also facilitates within-group trust, cooperation, and coordination, we conjecture that ethnocentrism may be modulated by brain oxytocin, a peptide shown to promote cooperation among in-group members. In double-blind, placebo-controlled designs, males self-administered oxytocin or placebo and privately performed computer-guided tasks to gauge different manifestations of ethnocentric in-group favoritism as well as out-group derogation. Experiments 1 and 2 used the Implicit Association Test to assess in-group favoritism and out-group derogation. Experiment 3 used the infrahumanization task to assess the extent to which humans ascribe secondary, uniquely human emotions to their in-group and to an out-group. Experiments 4 and 5 confronted participants with the option to save the life of a larger collective by sacrificing one individual, nominated as in-group or as out-group. Results show that oxytocin creates intergroup bias because oxytocin motivates in-group favoritism and, to a lesser extent, out-group derogation. These findings call into question the view of oxytocin as an indiscriminate “love drug” or “cuddle chemical” and suggest that oxytocin has a role in the emergence of intergroup conflict and violence.

Meaning that getting a feel good hug from someone might simultaneously make you subconsciously distrust black people.

Oxytocin also promotes lying for the group you identify with:

According to a new study by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and the University of Amsterdam, oxytocin caused participants to lie more to benefit their groups, and to do so more quickly and without expectation of reciprocal dishonesty from their group.

[…]

“Our results suggest people are willing to bend ethical rules to help the people close to us, like our team or family,” says Dr. Shaul Shalvi of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Department of Psychology and director of BGU’s Center for Decision Making and Economic Psychology.

Dr. Shalvi’s research focuses on ethical decision-making and the justifications people use to do wrong and still feel moral. Specifically, he looks at what determines how much people lie and which settings increase people’s honesty. Very little is known about the biological foundations of immoral behavior.

“Together, these findings fit a functional perspective on morality revealing dishonesty to be plastic and rooted in evolved neurobiological circuitries, and align with work showing that oxytocin shifts the decision-maker’s focus from self to group interests,” Shalvi says.

This isn’t really surprising, given the purpose of oxytocin. It seems to be zero sum: The more you bond with someone/some group, the less you bond with the real or hypothetical “other”. I’m wondering if oxytocin would also promote increased religiosity in the same way that being prompted about death makes people more religious; that collectivism or “fear of strangers” link is there so it seems plausible.

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Posted by on April 3, 2014 in cognitive science

 

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