Wednesday, 30 July 2014

When the cuddle hormone turns nasty - oxytocin linked with violent intentions

For many years, the hormone oxytocin was caricatured as the source of all human goodness - trust, altruism, love, and morality. Among the findings that contributed to this picture were the discovery that sniffing oxytocin increases people's trust and generosity in financial games; that it aids face recognition; and that its release is associated with maternal bonding; and with orgasm.

However, the picture has grown a lot more complicated of late, with findings showing that oxytocin has a "dark side" - for example, boosting envy and shadenfreude. Now a team of researchers led by Nathan DeWall has further sullied the reputation of this once idolised molecule. They've demonstrated that for certain people in particular circumstances, exposure to oxytocin might actually lead to increased violence.

The researchers split 93 undergraduates (47 men) into two groups - one group sniffed oxytocin, the other group sniffed a salt water solution. The students didn't know whether they'd received the oxytocin or the placebo, and the researchers were also blinded to who'd received what. Next the students completed two tasks designed to make them stressed, including giving a public presentation to an unfriendly audience. Finally, they answered two questions about their tendency to be physically aggressive, and further questions about how likely it was that they'd engage in violence towards a current or former romantic partner based on how they currently felt.

Here's the main finding - oxytocin boosted the self-confessed likelihood of being violent towards a partner, specifically in those students who admitted that they have a proclivity for physical aggression. DeWall's team think this fits with an emerging, more nuanced understanding of oxytocin's effects. It remains true that the hormone plays an important role in maintaining human relationships, but this isn't always an innocent function. Previous research shows oxytocin can increase intolerance and aggression towards outsiders. Now we learn that for people who typically resort to aggression to keep hold of their romantic partners, stress plus increased oxytocin nudges them towards violence.

"Our findings add to the understanding of the 'prickly side of oxytocin'," said DeWall and his team. "Far from being a panacea for all social ills, oxytocin may have a much more diversified effect, as in the current case."

  ResearchBlogging.orgDeWall, C., Gillath, O., Pressman, S., Black, L., Bartz, J., Moskovitz, J., & Stetler, D. (2014). When the Love Hormone Leads to Violence: Oxytocin Increases Intimate Partner Violence Inclinations Among High Trait Aggressive People Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5 (6), 691-697 DOI: 10.1177/1948550613516876

--further reading--
A social 'Viagra' for shy people?
Why do some men insult their partners?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


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Research Digest said...

So much for installing atomizers in my psych ward.

Research Digest said...

Shopping is different because it's an *iterated* choice. You can hedge your bets and refine your estimates by trying more than one.

Research Digest said...

Has anyone considered the possibility that oxytocin may be increasing the subjects' tendency to be honest about their feelings - perhaps as a side-effect of feeling more trust towards the interlocutor?

Research Digest said...

That was my initial reaction. It does not seem to have allowed for that in the testing.

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Research Digest said...

It also certainly doesn't help there are people drawing political battle lines. Saying if you're left wing you have to believe this, if you're right wing you believe this. You're alienating a huge demographic that don't define themselves in partisan terms. People are more nuanced than that.

This article was a great read.

Research Digest said...

TEA party? Fringe libertarians? Anti-abortion campaigners? They definitely exist and public views about them are also generally negative

Research Digest said...

Your comment seems to be inconsistent with itself.

"I don't think anyone working towards a better society and world, in general, needs to, or should, waste any energy considering "what others think" of them."


"And besides, it's all in the presentation, baby. Any activist worth their salt knows that going in."

Research Digest said...

I agree with you, but as someone who has been involved in a good deal of activism, and in the company of friends who I think of as even more involved than I, there's a common thread of, "how is it that no one is listening?" There's a deeply felt frustration among activists that no one is listening, and thus, they must be even more hyperbolistic and loud about their cause.

Clearly, as the research in the article suggests, this is counter-productive; it's just that when you're 'within' the cause, you are almost incapable of being reserved because of how emotionally charged you are about it, especially if it's a cause that personally affects you in a big way. My theory is that in order to successfully champion any cause without being so disconnected from it as to be ineffective, you've got to be at least a mild sociopath. This explains a lot of the influential people in media, in my opinion.

Research Digest said...

I have yet to meet a conservative activist that screams about how everyone who disagrees with them is racist/sexist/ableist/cis/het/white/scum/deserves to die/should be killed etc

No that's only psycho fuck liberals

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