The Oxytocin Made Me Do It! Are Our Hormones In Charge?

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The ‘cuddly hormone’, oxytocin, seems to have a dark side, according to research suggesting that it only works on those who are within our own group. But does this say anything about our real lives?

Last year’s studies on the effects of oxytocin on behaviour by Carsten K. W. De Dreu, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, and his just-published article ‘Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism‘ have received wide and prominent coverage, including in the New York Times. The conclusion being read into the studies is that oxytocin — the “cuddly hormone” which is abundant in empathy, trust and bonding scenarios, such as between mothers and their newborns — has a dark side. It appears to bond us only to those within our own social group.

The research itself, and especially its presentation in the popular media, throws up some questions for me. Firstly: is it really the chemical itself which acts upon us, or is it us, in our situations, who feel and act in various ways, and when we do so, this involves the release of the chemical?

One of the experimental scenarios involved pressing a key to indicate the positive or negative connotations of a name — some from the in-group, Dutch, and some from an out-group, e.g. German or Muslim. It was found that increased oxytocin increased the likelihood of favouring the in-group.

The problem with this result is that it doesn’t seem to tell us anything about real life, where people are unlikely to be presented with oxytocin to sniff before entering mixed company. The experiment measured artificially raised levels, and in real life, the oxytocin levels rise and fall as an integral part of an individual’s response to situations. If people are in situations in which oxytocin levels might rise — say a closely bonded group situation such as the army — then negative feelings towards the ‘out-group’ might well also rise. It is no surprise that this might happen from the nature of a closely bonded group situation, and the fact that we now understand which specific hormones tend to be released in these situations does not make those phenomena suddenly reliant on those hormones. The fact that we now understand the hormonal aspect of the situation does not mean that we have ‘the cause’.

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In other experiments, the students were faced with moral dilemmas, in which one person (with an in-group or out-group name) might be sacrificed to save several people (with no names). Under the influence of oxytocin, the students were more likely to choose the ‘out-group’ people as the sacrifice.

The researchers concluded that the hormone was involved in positive feelings for one’s own group, an intensification of feeling for those who shared their values, rather than the escalation of negative feelings for others. Still, the consequence of this intense bonding had negative fallout for those who found themselves outside the group.

I wonder whether other chemicals administered which relax people and lower their inhibitions might not have had a similar effect on the average person. In a similar vein, I wonder when I hear about ‘oxytocin parties’ (yes, you can create your own experimental study!) whether a variety of drugs might not have a similar effect in bonding groups and bringing couples together — sometimes indiscriminately…

The extensive studies on oxytocin have had useful consequences, for example recognition that stress for birthing mothers can impede the release of the hormone, and therefore impede bonding with the newborn (see the work of Michel Odent in this regard). As with all understanding of the hormonal workings of our bodies, this knowledge can be used to help people who have problems which might be linked to imbalances.

But while more knowledge is always useful, I am cautious when I read interpretations of data which talk about the effects of chemicals as if they were dominant causal factors in human behaviour, particularly when the studies involve artificial heightening or lowering of their levels. The above-cited article asks the question, “What does it mean that a chemical basis for ethnocentrism is embedded in the human brain?” The answer seems to me to be simple and devoid of ideology: there is a chemical basis for anything that humans do — or they would be unable to do it.

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