Oxytocin, the “moral molecule”?
As a former marketing professional, I love catchy expressions and I was quite sure that the title above would motivate you to open our newsletter but I have to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s: I have borrowed this expression from Paul Zak (if you don’t know “Dr Love”, I suggest that you have a look at his speech on TED and/or at his website). The little question mark, though, is my own creation. It’s here to remind you that it’s always good to be on alert when someone mixes marketing and science. I don’t intend to prove that Zak is right or wrong. I just want to summarize briefly for you what we know about oxytocin and then let you decide what to think.
Oxytocin is an hormone released in mammals in various situations, for instance when they have sexual relationships or, for females, during labor or breastfeeding. Its role as a neuromodulator has been studied in the last 10 years only. It has been shown in that administration of oxytocin via intranasal injection was causing a substantial increase in trust among humans (Kosfeld, Heinrichs, P.J. Zak, Fischbacher, & Fehr, 2005) and that in the context of couple conflict, it significantly increased positive communication behavior in relation to negative behavior (Ditzen et al., 2009). Another experiment conducted by Zak’s team (Barraza, J. a et al., 2011) did also show that oxytocin infusion increased charitable donations regardless of monetary resources of the subjects. However, things about the brain are never simple and another experiment showed that oxytocin could also increase envy and gloating in some money games where the subjects were respectively winning more or less money than their co-players (Shamay-Tsoory, Fischer, Dvash, Harari, & Perach-Bloom, 2009).
A recent review of all recent oxytocin experiments (Bartz, J.A. et al., 2011) lists three basic mechanisms by which the administration of oxytocin could affect social cognition and prosocial behavior in humans: anxiety reduction, affiliative motivation (our drive to bond) and perceptual selectivity for social stimuli (our capacity to focus our attention on social information). This last mechanism is seen by the authors as especially key in cooperative or competition situations.
Last but not least, another very recent paper (Kemp & Guastella, 2011) makes in my opinion a good synthesis of the different results collected so far by saying that oxytocin might facilitate “approach-related” behaviors (i.e., emotional engagement) and reduce “withdrawal-related” behaviors (i.e., anxiety and fear). NB: the authors of this paper include anger, jealousy and envy in “approach-related” behaviors, which makes their theory compatible with the negative impacts of oxytocin listed above.
In a nutshell, oxytocin may help us “approach” our fellow human beings, for “good” or “bad” motives. Depending on your beliefs and values, you might say that charity is “good” and envy is “bad”…or you might prefer to use some other adjectives.
I have an anecdote to conclude: one day, in the middle of a difficult conversation with my wife, I started giving a tender caress on her arm while reminding her about the beauties of oxytocin with a warm smile on my face – as you can imagine from what I have shared with you, that was a risky move since oxytocin release may have in fact amplified her anger rather than bringing back harmony. What happened? She started to laugh while asking me to stop my manipulation. Not an oxytocin effect, but a good distraction strategy.