The differences between the sexes seem to extend to how each uses oxytocin when feeling threatened, though the hormone enhances both men’s and women’s instincts to protect others in their social group.
“There are two parts to love: the cuddly, warm kind of love and the ‘I’ll kill anyone who hurts my baby’ kind of love,” says Dr. Kai MacDonald, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Diego. “There’s probably something both to the protective mother-child instinct but also broad-based protection.”
Oxytocin’s effects on men was studied in the June 2010 issue of the journal Science, which indicated that it triggers defensive aggression in outsiders who threaten someone’s social group – such as soldiers defending their comrades. Prior animal studies had shown that oxytocin promotes protectionist behavior, but this research was the first to illustrate a similar effect in humans.
Study author Carsten De Dreu and his team conducted three experiments, giving men oxytocin or a placebo and asking them to make decisions with financial consequences to themselves, their in-group and a competing out-group. Results showed the oxytocin promoted in-group trust and cooperation along with defensive – but not offensive – aggression toward competing out-groups.
Researchers manipulated the fear factor by increasing the financial damage that outsiders could inflict upon a group.
“Our study shows that oxytocin not only plays a role in modulating cooperation and benevolence, but also in driving aggression,” said De Dreu, a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, in the paper. He said this “dark side” of cooperation makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint of competing groups.
Women’s roles as protectors of their offspring were the focus of comments regarding a 2000 study in Psychological Review of the unique female stress response dubbed “tend and befriend.”
Lauren A. McCarthy of the Rochester Institute of Technology said oxytocin is pivotal in a “stress response cascade” that causes females to stick with their social groups when threatened, even at grave risk to themselves. While males tend to have a “fight or flight” response to a potential threat or danger, McCarthy said, women tend to young in times of stress and befriend those around them to increase chances of survival.
“They’d be willing to fight almost to the death to protect their offspring,” says C. Sue Carter, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and co-director of The Brain Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Oxytocin’s interaction with other brain chemicals involved in stress response is “almost like a cocktail, and the cocktail can be mixed in several ways,” adds Carter, one of the nation’s first oxytocin researchers. “Oxytocin is having effects that tend to be pro-social, but we’re seeing lots of exceptions.”
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Written by Maureen Salamon. For more information contact Bryan Post, Managing Editor of Oxytocin Central firstname.lastname@example.org or call (405) 476-1983