Oxytocin, A Conspiracy Story

Conspiracy theories maintain that a small group of people can not only change the world, but that they can do so in such a way that virtually everyone is unaware of their role in shaping history. These theories are criticized, in part, because they assume that too few people can get away with too much.

conspiracy-theory-alertNeuroscience commentators have adopted conspiracy-like theories about the molecule oxytocin. These theories hold that evolution has found a way to make this molecule solely responsible for complex psychological phenomena like altruism, happiness, love, morality, or trust. Can a single molecule really get away with so much?

As is often the case, the science is more complicated than its commentary. A hormone that acts as a neuropeptide in the mammalian brain (Landgraff & Neuman, 2004), oxytocin plays many roles in reproduction and other social behaviors for many species, including ours (Gimpl & Fahrenholz, 2001MacDonald & MacDonald, 2010).

Simplistic accounts of oxytocin’s function are Procrustean beds that suffer from four serious problems.

Problem 1: What Exactly Does Oxytocin Do?

Terms like altruism, happiness, love, morality, and trust are not synonyms (e.g., love is a feeling whereas morality refers to beliefs about right and wrong). This means that either oxytocin is the molecule behind only one of these concepts, or it plays a role in something that is present in all of them (e.g., the feeling of attachment).

In either case, neuroscience commentators should not rush to label oxytocin as the molecule of [insert complex psychological phenomenon] with such confidence.

Problem 2: Inconsistent Findings about Oxytocin

The positive effects of oxytocin in experiments are not always consistent. In fact, most studies only find evidence of these effects in some people under some circumstances (Bartz, Zaki, Bolger, & Ochsner, 2011). For example, oxytocin does not increase participants’ trust of individuals who appear untrustworthy (Mikolajczak et al., 2010).

Some studies find that oxytocin has negative effects (Bartz et al., 2011), like defection (Declerck, Boone, & Kiyonari, 2010), envy (Shamay-Tsoory et al., 2009), and in-group favoritism, the preferential treatment of the groups to which we belong (De Dreu, 2012).

Problem 3: Oxytocin Does Not Work Alone

Oxytocin is part of a complex brain chemistry. This molecule regulates social behavior and cognition alongside the neuropeptide vasopressin (Donaldson & Young, 2008Carter, Grippo, Pournajafi-Nazarloo, Ruscio, & Porges, 2008). For example, individual differences in a vasopressin receptor correlate with variability in altruism displays (Knafo et al., 2007).

In fact, vasopressin and oxytocin have many similarities. They share a receptor family (Peter et al., 1995) and work in the same neural pathway (Ebstein et al., 2009). They were likely created by the duplication of the same ancestral gene (Gimpl & Fahrenholz, 2001) and the same gene may regulate their levels (Ebstein, Knafo, Mankuta, Chew, & Lai, 2012).

Problem 4: Negative Consequences of Oxytocin Hype

Science writer Ed Yong has argued that commentary that oversells our understanding of oxytocin can lead to its misuse by a misinformed public. The alleged prosocial effects of this molecule have led parents to give oxytocin to their autistic children (Yong, 2012a, 2012b). This is troubling because the side effects of oxytocin are not fully understood yet.

Takeaways

  • Neuroscience commentators claim incorrectly that oxytocin is the molecule behind complex psychological phenomena like altruism, happiness, love, morality, or trust
  • These simplistic accounts suffer from four serious problems
    1. Inconsistency with each other
    2. Dismissal of conflicting scientific findings
    3. Oversimplification of brain chemistry
    4. Dangerous consequences from a misinformed public

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7 thoughts on “Oxytocin, A Conspiracy Story

  1. Oxytocin fascinates because of its alleged functions. You raise some valid points in your post. Interestingly, I reblogged Paul Zak’s TED Talk this morning. Do you mind me reblogging your post?

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I came across this post a while ago and have been meaning to reblog it for some time. The author of the reblogged post contests the multitude of functions scientists, including Paul Zak, and the media in general ascribe to oxytocin, a nonapeptide neuroendocrine hormone that mediates breastfeeding, pair bonding, the birthing process and erections among other things.

  3. Pingback: Poker Neuroscience: On Neural Tells | Procrustean Neuroscience

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