The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

Oxytocin Changes Political Preferences

But only for Democrats, not Republicans

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney faces the plurality dilemma: how to attract enough Independents and movable Democrats to win 270 votes in the Electoral College and become the 45th president of the United States. Research from my lab has shown that the brain chemical oxytocin affects political preferences in a way that Mitt's team could use to attract undecided voters.

When asked, people offer solid reasons why they identify themselves as Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or members of some other political party. Yet research by political scientists John Alford, Cary Funk, and John Hibbing indicates that nearly one half of the variation in political preferences across individuals is genetically determined.

But what about the other half? My lab ran an experiment to see if political preferences were changeable. The results surprised us.

My research was the first to identify the role of the neurochemical oxytocin in moral behaviors. I call oxytocin the "moral molecule" because it makes us care about others —even strangers—in tangible ways. But would oxytocin make people care about a political candidate from another party?

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During the 2008 presidential primary season, my colleagues and I administered synthetic oxytocin or a placebo to 88 male college students who had self-identified as Democrats, Republicans, or Independents (women were excluded because oxytocin's effects change over the menstrual cycle). After an hour, enough oxytocin gets into the brain to make people more trusting, generous, and empathic toward others. But politics separates us from others, as Jonathan Haidt has shown in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, so we were unsure if oxytocin would have any effect.

The experiment was simple: Rate from 0 to 100 how warm you feel toward politicians like the U.S. president, your congressperson, and those running in the then-wide-open presidential primaries for both parties.

We found that Democrats on oxytocin had significantly warmer feelings toward all Republican candidates than did Democrats who received a placebo, including a 30 percent warmth increase for John McCain, a 28 percent boost for Rudy Giuliani, and a 25 percent rise for Mitt Romney.

For Republicans, nothing. Oxytocin did not make them more supportive of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards. Independents waffled, but oxytocin moved them a bit toward the Democratic Party.

Digging into the data deeper, we found that it wasn't all Democrats on oxytocin who warmed up toward the GOP but only those loosely affiliated with the party. Call them Democratic swing voters, but the fact is that Republican swing voters could not be similarly moved.

Our findings are consistent with studies showing that Democrats tend to be less fixed in their views, while Republicans worry more about security and have an exaggerated stress response after an unexpected stressor.

While it would be unethical for politicians to spray oxytocin into the air at political rallies, this research provides a target for Republican strategists to attract Democratic voters: work the empathy and trust margins. Romney must show he is approachable and reliable during every public appearance.

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Originally posted at The Huffington Post 9/24/2012

This research was done with Professor Jennifer Merolla, Dr. Sheila Ahmadi, and graduate students Guy Burnett and Kenny Pyle. Zak is the author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity (Dutton, 2012).

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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