Oxytocin (alpha-hypophamine ) is a nine amino acid peptide more commonly known as a neurotransmitter in the brain - a love hormone.

There have been many studies trying to discern the impact of oxytocin on things like maternal behavior and sex but researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine wanted to find out if oxytocin helped us to 'understanding' other people in ordinary social encounters.

Result:  They determined oxytocin selectively improves social cognitive abilities for less socially proficient individuals, but has little effect on those who are more socially proficient. 

The study was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over challenge, giving 27 healthy adult men oxytocin or a placebo delivered nasally. Participants then performed an empathic accuracy task in which they watched videos of people discussing emotional events from their life and rated how they thought the people in the videos were feeling. 

The researchers looked at whether differences in social cognitive expertise affected response to oxytocin and, though all participants were adults who did not have autism, social competency was measured using the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), a common self-report instrument that predicts social cognitive performance.  Their hypothesis was that oxytocin and AQ would interact to predict social cognitive performance. Results showed that oxytocin improved empathic accuracy, but only in those individuals who were less socially proficient.

More socially proficient participants performed well on the empathic accuracy task regardless of whether they were on oxytocin or placebo. By contrast, less socially proficient participants performed poorly on placebo but significantly better on oxytocin. In fact, on oxytocin, their empathic accuracy performance was identical to that of the socially proficient participants.

"Oxytocin is widely believed to make all people more empathic and understanding of others," said Jennifer Bartz, PhD, Assistant Professor, Psychiatry, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and lead author of the study. "Our study contradicts that. Instead, oxytocin appears to be helpful only for those who are less socially proficient.

"Our data show that oxytocin selectively improves social cognition in people who are less socially proficient, but had little impact on more socially proficient individuals.   While more research is required, these results highlight the potential oxytocin holds for treating social deficits in people with disorders marked by deficits in social functioning like autism." 

Citation: Jennifer A. Bartz, Jamil Zaki, Niall Bolger, Eric Hollander, Natasha N. Ludwig, Alexander Kolevzon, and Kevin N. Ochsner, 'Oxytocin Selectively Improves Empathic Accuracy', Psychological Science Published online before print September 20, 2010 doi: 10.1177/0956797610383439