The Prickly Side of Oxytocin

Submitted by gary on
Printer-friendly version

Greg Miller

Oxytocin has a touchy-feely reputation, thanks to research showing that it promotes social bonding in a wide range of animals, including humans. But a study published on page 1408 of this week's issue of Science hints that the hormone has a prickly side as well. In experiments with groups of people playing an economic game, those who received a dose of oxytocin behaved more altruistically toward members of their own group. Yet they also displayed more "defensive aggression" toward outsiders, preemptively punishing members of a competing group when their own group was in danger of suffering a heavy financial loss.


Basis of xenophobia?

I should read the article before speculating, if these groupings were arbitrary rather than genetically based, then I can see how oxytocin could promote xenophobia. The genetic advantage of protecting relatives is easy to understand, but cooperation within an unrelated group confers no reproductive advantage. Given that nearly every nation in the world is suffering some amount of financial loss, when shall we start to see overt displays of "defensive aggression?"

sure thing, as here's another article on it -

Oxytocin helps soldiers like fellow, hate enemy

Saturday, June 12, 2010 12:16
Researchers have found that hormone oxytocin helps soldiers feel unity among themselves and at the same time aggression towards enemies.

The finding revealed that effect resolves around the hormone oxytocin which is released during stress and when people socialise with each other, reports

The research which was conducted using a computer simulation game found that volunteers given a spray of the hormone bonded more quickly and deeply with their own group but became much more hostile to outsiders.

Researchers performed three experiments, all on male volunteers, they compared the choices of individuals who received a dose of oxytocin via nasal spray with those who received a placebo.

The volunteers were assigned to three-person groups and introduced to a game in which they made confidential decisions that had financial consequences for themselves, their fellow group members and the competing groups.

The results indicated that oxytocin drives a "tend and defend" response, promoting in-group trust and cooperation while aggression towards competing out-groups.

"Oxytocin is a double edged sword. It makes you kinder to your group but more aggressive to those outside," said Carsten De Dreu, of the University of Amsterdam.

Dreu thinks that the production of oxytocin, which increases at times of stress and in new mothers, has evolved since hunting age when food was scarce and groups had to compete to survive.

"Being aggressive to threatening out-groups makes you a hero, loyal and a patriot to your own group," he added.

Holly Arrow, an expert in the psychology of war at the University of Oregon, said: "Oxytocin is perhaps an important pathway that bonds men together and makes them ready to defend the group".

The hormone appears to have this effect regardless of how naturally cooperative people are.

Smells like malarkey!

I read a book last summer written by a German psychiatrist on aggression. The book was written in the 1970’s and it explained a lot about social groups, and how they were hostile towards outsiders. Even mice would gang up and tear apart another mouse as soon as they found out that the scent of the intruder was not part of their social group. This sounds like human nature, race, class, social status and the like, human beings are not very nice under the surface, and that’s one of the reasons Freud believed that the human race should be tightly controlled, because lurking in every human being is something capable of dire cruelty. From holocausts and crusades of human extermination it’s quite clear of the extent in which people will go along with atrocities in the name of their race/class/ideologies and whatever else that sets one apart from their fellow human being, and makes them feel a sense of superiority. Three cheers for the art of public relations and mass consumerism, keep the populace lulled for underneath they are simply beasts. So as for oxytocin, human beings can be nice to their own groups, and hostile to outsiders by nothing more then the nature of the beast. Just my thoughts.

All life is sorrowful and the world is an ever burning fire, so enjoy the stately dance of the mystic bliss beyond pain, for that is at the heart of every mythic rite.

'nature' being...?

There is a mechanism operating within every natural process (or at least within every process that we have had the intelligence to recognize as such), so explaining hostility as 'nothing more than the nature of the beast' is dismissive and intellectually lazy. There is certainly a place for phenomenological studies, but their purpose is cartographic, that is, creating a map to aid future investigators when they attempt to understand what actually causes the phenomena that have been mapped. The 'beast' is a collection of racial memories encoded in a biochemical matrix (for lack of a better word), so if we ever want to move beyond Freud and his reactionary authoritarianism, we should do our best to understand the particular biochemical assembly with which we've been collectively blessed/cursed/your choice.

Many of us who visit this site are plagued by the clash of ancient reproductive programs with the ubiquitous simulated sex vomited up by the digital age, and I presume you understand that there is a well-documented set of biochemical states responsible for this unfortunate condition. If you accept that mechanism, then on what basis have you decided that aggression is a trivial ('nothing more than') yet intrinsic animal tendency rather than another consequence of our biochemistry?

Of course, if the title of your post was self-referential, then disregard my critique...


A much more elegant explanation than the one I was going to give, but the point is the same. There is no behavioral phenomenon without neurochemical events.