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Oxytocin is released in mammalian mothers after birth. It promotes nursing and bonding between a mother and her young. As children grow, oxytocin is involved in how both mothers and fathers “baby-talk” and mirror their children. It is involved in pro-social behaviors in both young and adults: trust, generosity, cooperation, hugging, and empathy. And of course, oxytocin promotes positive communication and pair bonding in romantic couples. Countless studies have found these relationships between affiliation and oxytocin in many mammalian species, giving oxytocin its commonly used nickname “the love hormone”.
But more recent studies show that it’s not so simple.
In a number of recent studies, people have been given oxytocin nasal sprays and tested for various behavioral effects in different contexts… and the context really seems to matter. Oxytocin increases trust, generosity, cooperation, and empathy towards people we already know and like. But it decreases trust, generosity, cooperation, and empathy towards strangers. When we play games with strangers, oxytocin makes us more jealous when we lose and it makes us gloat more when we win. It also seems to enhance many attributes relating to ethnocentrism: It increases our ability to read facially-expressed emotions in people of our own race while making it harder to read facial expressions of people of a different race. When forced to choose between being nice to a stranger of our own race versus a stranger of another race, oxytocin makes us more likely to choose the person of our own race. In studies of both people and rodents, oxytocin decreases aggression towards our families and friends, but increases aggression towards strangers.
Oxytocin is not the universal love hormone we once understood it to be. It helps us direct our positive support towards our “in-groups” (our family and friends) and defend them from our “out-groups” (individuals we don’t know). It is a delicate balance: Too little of it can cause social impairment and make it difficult to connect with loved-ones; Too much of it can increase our anxiety towards strangers and racist tendencies. And to make things more complicated, each of us has a slightly different oxytocin system: sex, gender, social history, history of childhood trauma or neglect, psychiatric illnesses and genetic variations all have profound effects on the oxytocin system.
There is much we don’t know about the role of oxytocin and love. But they are a good fit, because both, it seems, are complicated.
Want to know more? Check these out:
Shamay-Tsoory SG, & Abu-Akel A (2016). The Social Salience Hypothesis of Oxytocin. Biological psychiatry, 79 (3), 194-202 PMID: 26321019
Zik JB, & Roberts DL (2015). The many faces of oxytocin: implications for psychiatry. Psychiatry research, 226 (1), 31-7 PMID: 25619431