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More Insight Into Why ‘The Tears of Strangers Are Only Water’

If I want you to give time or money to my cause, I’ll say your sacrifice is for “people just like you, just like me,” for “communities like yours, all across America,” or, as Mary Tyler Moore once wrote, for “fascinating beings with complex social interactions, long childhoods and awkward adolescences” (her subject was lobsters—so human-like, she said, they even walk “claw-in-claw” on the seafloor). Feelings of kinship promote feelings of kindness, as marketers know. Last week, this paper in Science suggested one possible reason.

Dosed with the “cuddle chemical” oxytocin, men in the experiments became more generous to total strangers who were members of the same team. Other men, who got a placebo up their noses instead of the oxytocin spritz, were far less likely to help a fellow “Triangle” or “Circle.” (Importantly, the teams were what social psychologists call “minimal groups,” created right before the experiment began. It is incredibly easy to get human beings to share an identity. That’s why those appeals to help “people like you” are so effective.)

Oxytocin has gotten a lot of “cuddle chemical” press lately, because it’s associated with warm, touchy-feely emotions in one-on-one situations. Levels of oxytocin rise after orgasm and during childbirth and breast-feeding, for instance, and go up in children when they are comforted by their mothers. In one recent experiment, men given oxytocin became more sensitive to social cues and more empathetic—almost as empathetic, in fact, as women, said the experimenters. The “bonding hormone” has even been tried as a means of getting autistic people to be more alert to other people’s feelings.

The new Science paper, though, is the first I’ve seen to look at how oxytocin might interact with perceptions of groups instead of just individuals. Among the things I liked about it was its pushback against psychology’s individualist orientation.

After all, in the course of a typical day you encounter a lot of people whom you never perceive as individuals. Rather you’ll see them as “a cop,” “a mother,” “a guy driving a Mercedes,” “a New Yorker,” and so on. And your response to each will vary depending on the identity you perceive. Yet many theories describe the male brain or the child’s development or the use of stereotypes, as if all people mean the same thing to one another, and always have the same interaction with each new person they engage.

Well, as your mother the New York cop who drives a Benz might say, Forget about that. Individualist psychology would predict that oxytocin, the “bonding hormone,” requires sex, hugs, intimate conversation or some other one-on-one interaction. But these new experiments, performed by Carsten De Dreu and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam, show that the mere idea of shared membership in a group is enough. And unlike individualist accounts of oxytocin, which imply that it will have the same effect on any two people, De Dreu’s work found that oxytocin’s cuddly influence stops at the border between “Us” and “Them.”

In their first experiment, the researchers gave a task to 49 male students at their university, each of whom was seated in a cubicle, alone. Each man used a computer to distribute ten virtual euros. One choice was to keep the thing for himself, in which case the volunteer would be receive one euro later, when the experimenters paid up. Another choice was to give to a common fund shared by the subject and his teammates. That was worth only 50 cents to the individual, but it also gave 50 cents to every one of his fellow Triangles. The third choice was to spend the money on an attack on the other group: One euro here would result in 50 cents being taken away from the other side. Half the volunteers did the job in their normal hormonal state; the others received oxytocin beforehand.

In both groups, about a quarter of the men went out of their way to hurt the team they weren’t on. The big difference was in the way the rest behaved. A majority of the men without oxytocin preferred the selfish course, keeping the whole euro for themselves. With oxytocin, though, nearly sixty percent chose to give money to their group’s pool. Oxytocin seems to have triggered classic altruism: Less for me, more for us.

In a later experiment, another bunch of undergraduate men distributed the money using Prisoner’s Dilemma choices about whether to cooperate, both with teammates and with “out-group” members. Men working under oxytocin’s supposedly cuddly influence were significantly less likely to cooperate with “Them” than with “Us.”

De Dreu and co. say all this means they have found “a biological cause of intergroup competition and conflict.” But if one cause of their their results was a hormone, another, equal cause was the product of conscious symbolic thought: Before oxytocin could wield its influence, the men had to learn that they were either “Triangles” or “Circles.” Maybe we’re hormonally pre-wired to prefer “us” over “them”; but, as marketers know, we’re also wired to change our minds about exactly what “us” means. 

Last week’s Science paper:

De Dreu, C., Greer, L., Handgraaf, M., Shalvi, S., Van Kleef, G., Baas, M., Ten Velden, F., Van Dijk, E., & Feith, S. (2010). The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans Science, 328 (5984), 1408-1411 DOI: 10.1126/science.1189047

Recent papers on oxytocin’s role as “the bonding hormone”:

Feldman, R., Weller, A., Zagoory-Sharon, O., & Levine, A. (2007). Evidence for a Neuroendocrinological Foundation of Human Affiliation: Plasma Oxytocin Levels Across Pregnancy and the Postpartum Period Predict Mother-Infant Bonding Psychological Science, 18 (11), 965-970 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.02010.x

Hurlemann, R., Patin, A., Onur, O., Cohen, M., Baumgartner, T., Metzler, S., Dziobek, I., Gallinat, J., Wagner, M., Maier, W., & Kendrick, K. (2010). Oxytocin Enhances Amygdala-Dependent, Socially Reinforced Learning and Emotional Empathy in Humans Journal of Neuroscience, 30 (14), 4999-5007 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5538-09.2010


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