Oxytocin Again: This Neuropeptide May Not Be A “Magical ‘Trust Elixir'”

From Stephanie West Allen’s blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution.

Here's another piece of research on oxytocin. (Links to past posts about oxytocin below.)

The study from Psychological Science is here: "Oxytocin Makes People Trusting, Not Gullible." Excerpt (citations removed):

The neuropeptide oxytocin (OT) plays such a key role in social behavior that it has been referred to as “the love hormone” and “liquid trust”. These nicknames have an element of truth: When OT levels are increased, people do in fact seem to become more altruistic, trusting, and generous.

The effect of OT on prosocial behavior—and on trust in particular—is so strong that it has been suggested that OT may make people indiscriminately prosocial (e.g., trusting to a fault). While the press and researchers alike have worried about its potential misuse by politicians, the armed forces, and marketers, OT retailers have flourished by convincing clients that they can close deals with a few whiffs of OT.

But does OT really increase people’s trust in anybody, or can contextual cues of unreliability override the effects of OT? Animal studies suggest that OT’s social effects may be context dependent. In rodents, a female’s OT release after giving birth decreases her aggressiveness toward her offspring but increases her hostility toward potentially aggressive female intruders. It is not known, however, whether OT’s effects are context dependent in humans. To examine this issue, we used a customized version of the trust game. In this

game, we manipulated partners’
trustworthiness and measured participants’ investment in each partner. We predicted higher investment by participants who received a nasal OT spray than by control participants, unless there were cues that a partner might not be trustworthy.

This study has several implications. First, oxytocin is not the magical “trust elixir” described in the news, on the Internet, or even by some influential researchers. Second, the fact that we observed a significant effect of OT when the partner was a computer suggests that OT’s effect may be primarily moderated not by the human versus nonhuman nature of the partner, but rather by the perceived risk inherent to the interaction.

Past posts on oxytocin:


Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

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