Thursday, January 26, 2012

SPSP 2012: Oxytocin, Threat, and the “Mama Bear Effect”

“Oxytocin may be critically involved in both ethnocentrism and parochial altruism.”
-Carsten de Dreu, University of Amsterdam

Long called the “Love Hormone,” the hormone oxytocin has been implicated for more than a decade in such prosocial activities as empathy, trust, and generosity (with both human and animal models). At the social neuroendocrinology pre-conference at this year’s SPSP conference, some influential researchers in the field of social psychology laid out why oxytocin might also have another side that is less fuzzy, and more defensive.

First, Wendy Berry Mendes, Professor at UC San Francisco showed evidence that intranasal administration of oxytocin—in contexts where a person is threatened by negative evaluations from others—increases subjective reports of anger and physiological challenge states indexed by increased efficiency of the heart, relative to placebo. Under stress, it seems that oxytocin actually increases approach-oriented states and tendencies.

Second, Carsten de Dreu of the University of Amsterdam laid out a theoretical model suggesting that oxytocin does not uniformally increase prosociality, but instead, increases “tend and defend” responses. For example, people who are administered oxytocin tend to more easily associate in-group members (Dutch individuals) with positivity and out-group members (Germans) with negativity, relative to placebo. As a second example, oxytocin administered participants are also more likely to engage in moral choices where they harm one individual to save five others when that other individual is given an out-group (German) versus an in-group (Dutch) name.

Finally, Jennifer Bartz of McGill University discussed how oxytocin may increase prosocial inferences among people who tend to be less anxious. For instance, individuals who were less anxiously attached to a significant other—less anxious of rejection from a person who they love—tended to recall more positive experiences in childhood with that significant other when administered oxytocin versus placebo.

All told, the future of oxytocin research seems to lie in the examination of the precise social factors that lead oxytocin to promote prosocial responses on one hand, and protective/defensive/aggressive responses on the other. I’m excited about the future of this research!

If you’re excited too, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the conference and about the “love hormone” more generally.

De Dreu CK, Greer LL, Handgraaf MJ, Shalvi S, Van Kleef GA, Baas M, Ten Velden FS, Van Dijk E, & Feith SW (2010). The neuropeptide oxytocin regulates parochial altruism in intergroup conflict among humans. Science (New York, N.Y.), 328 (5984), 1408-11 PMID: 20538951


  1. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

  2. Paul J. Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, did some research which suggests that males tend to seek out more sexual partners when they produce lower amounts of Oxytocin.

    1. Paul Zak's done a number of very awesome studies on oxytocin and it's role in promoting love, trust, and generosity. He's actually got a new book that looks pretty relevant: The Moral Molecule

  3. Does Zak's research indicate causality or is it possible that the males are producing less oxytocin as a *result* of seeking out more sexual partners?

    1. I think Zak's work is mostly correlational because he uses blood draws to assay for oxytocin, rather than nasal administration of oxytocin v. placebo.

  4. Really interesting work. Its good article. Regards.