The Love Bug: A Short Story about a Hormone

Scientific research on hormones reveals many deeper preoccupations.

Posted Apr 12, 2009

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Several years ago, I noticed that the hormone oxytocin was being touted as promoting trust, especially after it was seen that levels of the hormone increase after women give birth. Interest among researchers soon turned to whether oxytocin could facilitate "mind-reading," with the blog Brainethics enthusing that the hormone is at last "the window to the soul." More recently, attention turned to whether oxytocin might diminish social anxiety, partly because the hormone reduces the response of the amygdala, the region of the brain that helps regulate fear. As New Scientist put it in July 2007, "Hormone Spray Could Banish Shyness."

Reporting on the same story in the New York Times, Benedict Carey chose to end on a wry note, with this statement from Dr. Ernst Fehr, a professor of economics at the University of Zurich and the author of a study on oxytocin and sociability: "The prospect of used-car dealerships infusing the air with oxytocin to increase sales is . . . far-fetched, Dr. Fehr said. 'The half-life of oxytocin in the air (in a spray) is just two or three minutes,' he said. 'Thus you would have to administer a permanent rainfall of it. This looks impossible to me.'" For some reason that unlikely, almost surreal image of people walking around under fountain-sprays of liquid hormone has tickled me ever since. If only René Magritte were still alive to paint it.

In its most-recent incarnation, the story of oxytocin has shifted to whether it might promote love—or lust. Just yesterday, ABC News reported on an article in the latest issue of Hormones and Behavior that is subtitled, rather soberly: "Oxytocin increases perceived facial trustworthiness and attractiveness." To ABC News that translated into the following jazzy message: "Love Hormone Boosts Strangers' Sex Appeal," with a complicating—some would say contradictory—subtitle, "Oxytocin Could Play a Key Role in Choosing Mates."

The ABC News report—crossposted on The Huffington Post, where I found it—bears an uncanny resemblance to a slightly earlier summary by Rama Kant Mishra on the web site Ground Report, with jokes and sentences apparently lifted wholesale, without credit. The question nonetheless arises how a hormone that seems to put everyone (and perhaps everything) in a rosier light could help one target a potential love-match. If anything, oxytocin's capacity to make everyone seem more alluring surely would make that search even harder, not least by making it more difficult to choose from among a larger pool of attractive objects.

I'll leave it to readers of Psychology Today to gauge whether what ABC News dubs "love" is in this case really "lust," especially given the emphasis on added sex appeal. The broader point is that this hormone is being infused with a great deal of meaning to support a story we all apparently want to hear—a story that's full of hope and possibility, which in each incarnation tells us a lot about the outsized expectations we're placing on this minuscule element: greater trust and sociability; more transparency, intimacy, and stronger pair bonding between lovers; increased attractiveness and desire; better sex, and so on. That story is also worthy of study, not least because it says a lot about the drives and expectations that fuel a significant amount of psychological and scientific research. For one thing, it asks us to consider why we're so susceptible to thinking that one biological element could explain and make sense of so many different, profoundly complex psychological factors.

Christopher Lane, the Pearce Miller Research Professor at Northwestern University, is the author most recently of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. Follow him on Twitter @christophlane