Is Oxytocin Really Evil?
    By Susan Kuchinskas | September 21st 2012 02:10 PM | 10 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Susan Kuchinskas is a journalist and author who writes about science, technology and culture. She's the author of "The Chemistry of Connection: How...

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    a group of barbie dollsIs oxytocin really evil? No, oxytocin is not evil. But not all of its effects turn you into an angel of bliss.

    Science bloggers had a blast a few weeks ago, caviling at Paul Zak's Moral Molecule thesis, digging up an old study showing that soldiers defending their own troops had elevated levels of oxytocin.

    Now, a new study, cleverly named The Herding Hormone, finds that oxytocin makes it more likely we'll conform to our group's standards.

    First, men in the study were divided into two groups. Half the study participants inhaled oxytocin and half placebo. Then, they were shown photographs and asked to rate the people's attractiveness. While they were doing the ratings, they were also shown the ratings given by both their group and the other group (in-group and out-group).

    Adjusting for various things, those who had inhaled oxytocin were more likely to conform to the ratings of their own group.  

    This is not surprising; we humans are social animals. In primitive times, physical survival depended on cooperation and mutual support of the tribe or extended family. Today, while we can maintain a single household and make a living without deep ties, we become physically stressed without affection.

    Oxytocin helps us remember who we know and trust. It creates a bond deep enough for two parents to stay together despite toothpaste in the sink, angry words and the sheer drudgery of raising kids. And that deep bond lets mothers and fathers hold their children through the tears, dirty diapers and teen-age years.

    So, evidently, it also helps us get along by going along sometimes.

    Interestingly, the study was led by Mirre Stallen, who is with the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Rotterdam. (Zak also comes from the business world.) Business, commerce, industry, etc. are all based on cooperation and collaboration. Sometimes in the workplace, you can't be the squeaky wheel. So, a little oxytocin helps with that.

    Lindsay Abrams of The Atlantic has an excellent write-up of the experiment with more detail.

    PHOTO: twid

    Read more:

    Dose Soldiers with Oxytocin

    Oxytocin Not Always So Goody-Goody

    Oxytocin, Chemical of Connection and Envy


    Oxytocin has taken a hard fall but that is likely because it was hyped up way too much in mainstream media's desire to create soap opera plots about science - invent a miracle product so they can later do scare journalism about it.

    And congratulations on having been for over 5 years!  
    invent a miracle product so they can later do scare journalism about it.
    But is this evidence of intelligent planning or is it simply a media mechanism that has increased by social selection because it works?
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Susan Kuchinskas
    Robert, if I understand your comment, you are talking about all the hype, both for oxytocin and the recent backlash. Is that correct? If so, I think it's both. Certainly social media has a tendency to amplify that which already has a strong emotional charge or is funny or weird or surprising.

    There is also this tactic in social media called link-baiting. Link-baiting is deliberately putting out something timely and controversial, hoping to attract a lot of comments and thereby increase your blog's ranking in search results.

    Many journalists and bloggers now get bonuses -- or payment at all, based on how many page views stories get. If I were being paid that way, why would I waste my efforts on balanced journalism?
    Food for thought.  Will need two or three days to digest.

        Crustulum, crustulum, crustulum cru,
        Cano aenigmata, canis ac tu?
        Crustulum, crustulum, crustulum crum,
        Cerebrum meum est fatiga-tum.

    (from the Latin version of Winnie the Pooh)

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    based on how many page views stories get. If I were being paid that way, why would I waste my efforts on balanced journalism?
    Balance is never a waste; it's what keeps the world running.
    Susan Kuchinskas
    Thanks for the reminder!
    Mark Sloan
    Susan, so people have actually published papers claiming oxytocin is shown to have ‘evil’ effects such as soldiers more aggressively defending their groups and motivating (through envy) punishment of arrogant behavior? 

    These are prime examples (which I was not aware of – thanks!) of oxytocin’s role in motivating evolutionarily moral behavior, altruistic behavior that also increases the benefits of cooperation in groups. Rather than being ‘evil’, aggressively defending your in-group against out-groups and punishing people who violate norms are both necessary for maintaining altruistic cooperation in groups which is the main selection force responsible for making us such successful social animals. 

    The ideas that aggressively defending your in-group and punishing norm violators might be ‘evil’ are fairly new ideas and by no means universal. Both ideas are fully consistent with moral behavior understood as biological and cultural evolutionary adaptations. 

    The observed increase in gloating may be the best counterexample of the bunch (to oxytocin motivating moral behavior), but it would not be the first time nature applied an adaptation for multiple purposes.
    Susan Kuchinskas
    Thanks for the insightful comments, Mark. If you are interested in finding the papers, and don't mind taking the time, you can get to them thru the links back to my other blog articles at the bottom of the original post.

    I agree with you that these examples show "altruistic behavior that increases the benefits of cooperation in groups." I don't actually think these are evil behaviors; I agree that they are consistent with some of the adaptations we call "moral."

    The "evil" was a reference to the spate of snarky tweets and blog posts a few weeks ago trying to slam the very well-established scientific literature showing that oxytocin is involved in pro-social behavior.

    And I am not above trying to attract attention with headlines.

    It was definitely the hype I had in mind when I made my earlier comments.  Here are a few thoughts:

    Could it be that the media people “out there” regard the “outsiders” in a similar way that the aristocracy used to regard the peasantry, or that one tribe would regard the members of another?

    Are they simply sold on the idea, the way people pick up things from Readers Digest articles?

    Or are they like purveyors of quack medicines or pornography (I have two specific examples in mind), who when asked “what is it good for?”, reply to the effect that it is good for their bank account.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Susan Kuchinskas
    I'm not sure if this answers your question, Robert, but I think that media folks tend to feel like outsiders -- and the journalistic ethos also encourages that attitude: Journalists are supposed to be unbiased, not take sides in their work and, in some old-school media orgs, are not even supposed to vote or contribute to causes! There's also a snarkiness that pervades the media world.

    I think your tribe analogy is closer than the peasant/aristocrat one.

    In any case, the media position is to stand back and comment, more than to get emotionally involved in what's going on. So I think journalists tend to distrust emotion in other people, even deep and genuine emotion, and maybe especially simple emotion.

    It's more comfortable to sneer at emotion and even the idea of morality than to wonder if there are emotional places that others go to that one can't.

    This is, of course, true not just of journalists. I think our culture is becoming more and more disconnected and we don't want to examine that.