Mind-reading can be improved with a dose of oxytocin

A study in the journal Biological Psychiatry shows that mind-reading can be improved with a dose of oxytocin—a brain chemical often called the ‘love hormone’ because of its role in trust, friendship and bonding.

Researchers at Rostock University, led by Gregor Domes, tested 30 males’ mind-reading ability—how well they could infer the mental state of another person—after either a dose of oxytocin or a placebo. Mind-reading was tested using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, where subjects looked at 36 pictures of a person’s eyes and tried to guess what emotion the eyes reflected

Domes found that subjects correctly identified the mood conveyed in the eyes more often after taking a dose of oxytocin as compared with placebo, regardless of which they took first.

This study highlights how we can manipulate our mind-reading ability. Just by taking a hormone, we can suddenly become more adept at picking up signals from people around us that alert us to their state of mind. Imagine taking this to a poker table. 

As Domes writes in the article, “the ability to infer the internal state of another person [and then] adapt one’s own behavior is a cornerstone of all human social interactions.” We all have some ability to understand our peers’ emotional states by observing their actions, expressions, and words, but a change in our hormone levels can alter that ability.

- Joshua Gowin


A neuroscience look at how oxytocin relates to social motivation

Passion and performance; a link forged by dopamine and oxytocin

An example of correlation is not causation

(via johntropea)

Trust Is Trust, Online And Off

Recent Pew research that shows that those that use the web more, trust people more:

The typical Internet user is more than twice as likely as others to feel that people can be trusted,” with regular Facebook users the most trusting of all. “A Facebook user who uses the site multiple times per day is 43% more likely than other Internet users and more than three times as likely as non-Internet users to feel that most people can be trusted.

Adam Pennenberg connects the dots between this and conventional, face-to-face trust bonding:

Adam Pennenberg, Digital Oxytocin: How Trust Keeps Facebook, Twitter Humming

[…] trust goes to the heart of our economic and social systems. Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak, a professor at Claremont College and author of the forthcoming book, The Moral Molecule: Vampire Economics and the New Science of Good and Evil, says that trust is the lubricant that makes economic transactions possible. […]

In his own research, Zak and a co-researcher found that nations with higher levels of trust (Sweden, Germany, the U.S.) have stronger economies than those on the other end of the spectrum (the Congo, Sudan, Colombia). “Where there is more trustworthiness, there is more prosperity,” Zak says. This trust also influences what we buy. A 2009 Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey study found that shoppers value the opinions of people they know the most, followed by online reviews written by strangers or in online communities.

There’s a good reason for this. We humans are hard-wired to commingle with one another offline and on-, and the web and its platforms like Facebook and Twitter make it more efficient than ever. That’s because virtual relationships can be as real as actual relationships. The truth is we’re all one step removed from reality, living life through the prism of our own minds. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found when they scanned the brains of fiction readers that they reacted as if they were actually living the events in the story.

Zak has traced much of our behavior to oxytocin, a single neuropeptide he’s dubbed “the moral molecule” because it appears to shape much of our better nature. Also referred to as the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is the same chemical that forges that unshakeable bond between nursing mothers and their babies. Women have 30% more of it than men, but men have plenty, too, and in a spate of experiments spanning a decade Zak has linked oxytocin to all manner of human behavior—from empathy to generosity to trust. And when we believe that someone trusts us, we trust them back, and this alters our behavior: It makes us more generous, for one. Ultimately, oxytocin is, Zak says, the “social glue” that adheres families, communities, and societies while simultaneously acting as an “economic lubricant” that enables us to engage in all sorts of transactions.

It turns out that oxytocin is not all sweetness and light: it is also associated with xenophobia and tribalism. Nonetheless, it is certainly at the root of our commitment to others, and our sense of trust, which arise from various sorts of friendly interactions, and these can happen just as well in general online as off, in general.

(Turns out there is a big surge in oxytocin after various sorts of intimate touching, both sexual and asexual. But that’s not the only pathway to intimacy.)

So, once again, our online relationships are as real as those formed offline, and the trust that accompanies them is too.

My Mother? Let Me Tell You About My Mother.

In Blade Runner, Leon Kowalski (played by Brion James) kills a ‘blade runner’ — an investigator searching for replicants, engineered humans — when asked ‘Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind about… your mother.’

It turns out that Leon’s reaction could be more human than we might have thought.

Ed Yong, The dark side of oxytocin, much more than just a “love hormone”

Jennifer Bartz from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine has found that oxytocin can have completely opposite effects on the way people behave, depending on how they view their relationships to other people.

She recruited 31 men* and asked them to sniff either an oxytocin nasal spray or another spray with the same ingredients minus oxytocin – a placebo. A few weeks later, the sprays were swapped so that the men who took oxytocin now took the placebo, and vice versa. At the time, neither the scientists nor the volunteers knew which was which – that was only revealed after the experiment was over.

Before all of this, the men completed a series of widely used questionnaires to measure the state of their social ties. The questions assessed the nature of their bonds with their families and friends, how sensitive they are to rejection, how comfortable they are at being close to other people, how much they desire that closeness, and more. Shortly after using both sprays, the recruits also answered questions about their mother’s parenting style.

Bartz found that when she averaged out the volunteers’ results, the sniffs of oxytocin hadn’t seemed to colour their memories of their mothers. But things changed when she looked at them individually. Those who felt more anxious about their relationships took a dimmer view of their mother’s parenting styles when they sniffed oxytocin, compared to the placebo. Those who were more secure in their relationships reacted in the opposite way – they remembered mum as being closer and more caring when they took the oxytocin.

These results show that oxytocin is far from being a simple “love hormone”. As Bartz says, it has a “more nuanced role… than previously thought,” and one that varies from person to person.  It’s “not an all-purpose attachment panacea.”

For now, Bartz isn’t sure why oxytocin can have such different effects. Her most educated guess is that the hormone triggers a biased trip down memory lane. Under its influence, people are more likely to remember information about their mother that fits with their current attitudes to relationships. If they are anxious, they’re more likely to remember the negative side of their early life. It’s a reasonable enough idea, and one that Bartz intends to test in the future.

So our perception of our current social relationships influences the way we think about relationships in general, and in specific, when we reminisce about mom. When we get dosed with oxytocin, it uses our current sense of sociality as an amplifier for the specific case, and mom seems more or less caring, depending on how we feel.

To extrapolate to other settings, like the business context, we can imagine a parallel: those that feel positive about their company social network would be more likely to express positive observations about the way the company is operating, and their relationship with the company, and other individuals in the company. And vice versa.

Strengthening In-Group Cohesion, Or Increasing Out-Group Bias?

In a recent study, Dutch researchers (led by Carsten De Dreu), found that oxytocin apparently increases the sense of relatedness that we have with those that we believe to be of the same ethnic group:

Ed Yong, No love for outsiders – oxytocin boosts favouritism towards our own ethnic or cultural group

Carsten de Dreu from the University of Amsterdam has found that sniffs of oxytocin make us more biased towards peers from our own ethnic or cultural group, versus those from other groups. Bartz commends the new study, saying, “Along with other recent reports, [the new study] suggests that although oxytocin clearly plays a role in prosociality and empathy, the way it does this is more nuanced than previously thought. This is not entirely surprising given the complexity of human relations.”


De Dreu asked 280 Dutch men to take three puffs form an oxytocin nose-spray, or a placebo that contained the same mixture without the hormone. It was a “double-blind” study – neither de Dreu nor the men knew who had been given what until the results were in.

First, de Dreu looked for any hidden biases in the volunteers’ reactions to German, Arab or other Dutch men. He used an ‘implicit association test, where volunteers used two keys to categorise words into different groups (e.g. Dutch names or German/Arab names, or positive and negative). Combinations of categories that contradict our biases should subtly slow our reaction times. If people are biased against Arab people, they’d take longer to finish the test if the same key was assigned to both Arab names and positive words. These “implicit associations” are very hard to fake, especially if the test is done at speed.

Sure enough, oxytocin strengthened the biases of the Dutch volunteers. When they sniffed oxytocin (rather than the placebo), they were quicker to associate positive words with Dutch names than with either German or Arab ones.

Such biases can affect how we see other people. We humanise those who are part of the same group, ascribing a more complex range of emotions to them. By contrast, we have a tendency to dehumanise outsiders, by assuming that their emotional lives are narrower. This particularly applies to so-called “secondary emotions”, such as admiration, hope or embarrassment, which are seen as unique to humans (in contrast to “primary emotions” like happiness, fear or disgust that are common to other animals).

De Dreu found that oxytocin strengthens these tendencies. He asked 66 white Dutch men to sniff either oxytocin or placebo before showing them pictures of other Dutch or Middle Eastern people. The volunteers had to say how strongly the people in the images would experience different emotions. Both groups were more likely to ascribe secondary emotions to people within their group than those outside it, but that difference was even greater after a sniff of oxytocin.

Finally, de Dreu showed that these shifting biases could affect the moral choices we make. He presented volunteers with a famous series of moral dilemmas. For example, a runaway rail trolley is hurtling towards five people who are about to be killed unless you flip a switch that diverts the trolley into the path of just one person. All of the dilemmas took the same form – you weigh the lives of one person against a group. And in all the cases, the lone person had either a Dutch, German or Arab name, while the group were nameless.

After a sniff of placebo, the Dutch volunteers were just as likely to sacrifice the single person, no matter what name they had. But after sniffing oxytocin, they were far less likely to sacrifice the Dutch loners than the German and Arab ones.

This last experiment clearly shows a trend that applied to the whole study: oxytocin boosted favouritism for people who belong to the same group. Only very rarely did it increase negative feelings towards people outside it. For example, in the moral dilemmas, oxytocin made the volunteers less likely to sacrifice members of their own group, but not more likely to sacrifice outsiders.

So, the evolutionary rationale is clear: the tribal imperative — saving members of the tribe first, and only then looking to help outsiders, if at all — is a strong motivator, channeled by culture, custom, and cognition. And at least at the cognitive level, pheromones seem to strengthen cognitive ties that bind kith and kin together, and divide one tribe from another.

——update 4:25pm——

Another interesting reference by Ed Yong, that seems closely related to this one:

Ed Yong, No love for outsiders – oxytocin boosts favouritism towards our own ethnic or cultural group

Carolyn H. Declerck found that oxytocin makes people more cooperative in a social game, if they had met their partner beforehand. If they played with an anonymous partner who they knew nothing about, oxytocin actually made them less cooperative. “Oxytocin does not unconditionally support trust,” she says.

Seems like another insider/outsider dichotomy.

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