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Oxytocin Takes the Sting Away, Studies Say

If you want to measure a person’s generosity level, see what they do when asked to give away some of their money. Researchers who decided this was a good way to measure oxytocin’s effect on generosity found that the hormone – known to promote trust – made study participants more likely to share, possibly by reinforcing their trust that their own portions would suffice.


In a 2007 study in the journal Public Library of Science ONE, participants were infused with oxytocin or a placebo and asked to decide how to split money with a stranger. Those on oxytocin were an amazing 80 percent more generous, researchers said, and the hormone seemed to also affect their sense of altruism, a selfless concern for others’ welfare at a cost to oneself.

The experimental strategy was to ask participants to consider another’s reaction to a split of benefits by giving one a chance to punish the other for a stingy offer. Oxytocin’s proven ability to reduce the fear response in humans by subduing activity in the amygdala – the brain’s so-called fear center – may have cut participants’ anxiety about relinquishing money, said study author Paul J. Zak of Claremont Graduate University in California.

“This indicates that generosity is associated with both altruism as well as an emotional identification with another person,” Zak said in the paper.

Belgian researchers used money to determine whether oxytocin’s trust-infusing effects would go overboard, making study participants not only generous but gullible. In the journal Psychological Science, a team of scientists had 60 men play a trust game after being administered either oxytocin or a placebo.

The men were given a sum of money and told they could share some or all of it with a partner. Any amount they gave their partner would automatically triple, but the partner could then decide to keep all the money or give some or all back. Partners were also described as reliable or unreliable, and participants also played against a computer, which randomly determined how much money to give back.

Those given oxytocin gave more money to the “reliable” partners and to the computer than those who took the placebo, according to the research. But the trust effect vanished when the men were asked to give money to the “unreliable” partners: Those on oxytocin gave about the same amount to the “unreliable” partners as those who received placebo.

“The ultimate irony of all this is that advertisers probably got hold of this and are going to use this to get us to subtly spend more,” says Dr. Kai MacDonald, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Diego.

“Maybe oxytocin loosens up your stingy side a little,” says MacDonald, an oxytocin researcher. “But it’s not going to make you give your money to a charlatan. It doesn’t make you stupid – it subtly biases a person toward generosity.”

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Written by Maureen Salamon. For more information contact Bryan Post, Managing Editor of Oxytocin Central  info@oxytocincentral.com or call (405) 476-1983

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