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The Dark Side of Oxytocin

Oxytocin may be an archetypal social hormone, but it can be anti-social too.

Perhaps thanks to the way that people think of them as some kind of magic potion, hormones such as testosterone or oxytocin can acquire an aura of positive or negative prejudice. Indeed, testosterone could be seen as the archetypical rogue hormone, with all kinds of bad behaviour routinely ascribed to it, and oxytocin as its virtuous opposite. But as I pointed out in a previous post, hormones are not in fact substances which transform good human beings into bad ones or bad ones into good ones the way magic potions do. Furthermore, as my Estonian colleague, Amar Annus points out, there is a dark side to oxytocin.

As explained in the previous post, oxytocin regulates social interaction, memory, attachment, and the reading of emotions; it acts as a buffer against social stress, and is critical in building trust. It enhances the motivation to initiate and sustain social contact by dampening social stress, and promotes the initiation and maintenance of close social contact, which is essential for learning about the mental states of others. Impaired functioning of the oxytocin system, on the other hand, contributes to mental disorders as the earlier post also noted.

Annus also points out that praying to God activates areas of the brain known to be involved in social cognition and Theory of Mind processing—what I would call mentalism. And as I also noted in a previous post, this finding supports the hypothesis that religious subjects who consider their God to be "real" and capable of reciprocating requests recruit brain areas involved with social cognition when they pray. Indeed, it has been argued that praying to God is an inter-subjective experience comparable to "normal" interpersonal interaction. According to other authorities,

Religious believers intuitively conceptualize deities as intentional agents with mental states who anticipate and respond to human beliefs, desires and concerns. It follows that mentalizing deficits, associated with the autistic spectrum and also commonly found in men more than in women, may undermine this intuitive support and reduce belief in a personal God. Autistic adolescents expressed less belief in God than did matched neuro-typical controls. … Mentalizing also explained the robust and well-known, but theoretically debated, gender gap in religious belief wherein men show reduced religious belief.

Nevertheless, oxytocin’s effects on social behaviour may not be modulated solely through pro-social emotions: oxytocin also enhances envy and gloating in a social game. According to research by Carsten De Dreu:

Human ethnocentrism—the tendency to view one's group as centrally important and superior to other groups—creates intergroup bias that fuels prejudice, xenophobia, and intergroup violence. Grounded in the idea that ethnocentrism also facilitates within-group trust, co-operation, and co-ordination, we conjecture that ethnocentrism may be modulated by brain oxytocin, a peptide shown to promote co-operation among in-group members. … Results show that oxytocin creates intergroup bias because oxytocin motivates in-group favoritism and, to a lesser extent, out-group derogation. These findings call into question the view of oxytocin as an indiscriminate “love drug” or “cuddle chemical” and suggest that oxytocin has a role in the emergence of intergroup conflict and violence.

Indeed, in another study de De Dreu reports

the results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment showing that the hormone oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty. Compared with participants receiving placebo, participants receiving oxytocin lied more to benefit their groups, did so quicker, and did so without expectation of reciprocal dishonesty from their group members. A control setting ruled out that oxytocin drives self-serving dishonesty. These findings support the functional approach to morality and reveal the underlying biological circuitries associated with group-serving dishonesty.

Annus argues that the facilities for both religion and nationalism are implicitly given by modules in brain architecture. Religious and national feelings emerge as natural products of the pro-socially wired brain. Therefore, he thinks that a human society without a religion or national feelings is impossible.

Wikimedia commons
The Near Eastern goddesses of love and war–oxytocin personified?
Source: Wikimedia commons

An authority on the ancient Near East, Prof Annus notes that in Mesopotamia Ishtar was both a goddess of love and also of war (above). The goddess of war and love might seem contradictory for the Western taste as we know that the Christian Madonna makes no war. The reference to oxytocin makes excellent sense of this seeming contradiction in the nature of ancient Near Eastern goddesses and reveals that people in antiquity already well observed what modern science is only beginning to discover.

He adds that the by-products of the pro-social brain can have both positive and negative effects on society, therefore it is very important to have a grip on them, with social work and religious education based on humanistic principles and well informed science. From this perspective, the appreciation of humanistic research and religious education is more important than usually understood.

Up to now, discussions of mentalism have almost universally assumed that it was a purely positive adaptation, with deficits such as those seen in autism being intrinsically maladaptive, or indeed pathological. But as every well-informed student of evolution knows, all adaptations come with costs as well as benefits, and here perhaps we have a striking example: a hormone which, like its diametric opposite, testosterone, has both a light and a dark side.

Prof Annus has been one of the first to raise the curtain on what will I suspect become one of the most important and controversial insights of research into social hormones and their affects on the brain and behaviour. I am indebted to him for his help and for bringing this material to my attention.

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