Friday, December 25, 2009

Waiting to Inhale: Oxytocin and Trust

This will be the first of a few posts on the chemical I spend more time thinking about than any other: Oxytocin. I would love to be able to measure oxytocin in the studies my colleagues and I do on couples but I think that ability is, technologically, some years off—at least in the way I’d want to measure it. But let me tell you why I’d love to measure it. The chemical oxytocin (a neuropeptide, to be exact) is widely assumed to be THE chemical of trust and bonding in humans. It is the chemical that floods women’s bodies at the birth of a child to enhance bonding with the newborn. It is also released in you (yes, you) by hugging, touching—and, importantly, people also get a jolt of it from sex. I’ll focus on some interesting thoughts about sex in a later post. For the moment, we’ll warm up to that by talking about talking.

There are a variety of small experiments that have tested the power of oxytocin. Apparently, you can inhale oxytocin and it will affect you—or most people, anyway. Perhaps inhale is not exactly the right term for what researchers do, but it can be put in your nose, introduced into your body in some way like that, it would likely have some short-term effect on your trust of others.

Enter a recent study that I find totally fascinating. A team of Swedish researchers (Beate Ditzen, Marcel Schaer, Barbara Gabriel, Guy Bodenmann, Ulrike Ehlert, and Markus Heinrichs) attempted to see if this trust-inducing chemical could affect how couples communicate about problem areas. Psychologically trained marital researchers in the U. S. and Europe have been videotaping couples while they communicate about issues for decades. (Perhaps you’ve noticed the small cameras around your home? Just kidding.) Hundreds of studies have come from this type of work. Couples come into a lab such as the one my colleague Howard Markman set up in our research center, and talk while being filmed. Howard, along with people such as John Gottman, Robert Weiss, and Cliff Notarius, are pioneers of this methodology. Videotaping couples while they talk allows researchers to watch the tapes over and over again in order to observe aspects of how couples communicate.

This method of studying communication allows us to study how “objectively” coded communication patterns (versus people’s personal reports of what they do, which are less reliable) relate to many other aspects of couples’ lives. For example, from such studies, we have learned a great deal about types of communication patterns that are associated with marriages running into difficulties in the future. Our books, such as Fighting for Your Marriage, focus a great deal on such things—and what to do about it.

Back to the Swedish researchers. (It just sounds sexy to be a Swedish researcher, doesn’t it?) What they found in their ingenious study fits all that we know about oxytocin. They gave couples either a snort of oxytocin or a placebo prior to talking about an area of conflict. The couples did not know which chemical they got. After studying the tapes, what they found is that those who got the oxytocin communicated more positively and less negatively during their discussions. Amazing. It’s exactly what you’d predict.

Does this mean that you should run out and get some oxytocin spray? (Oxytocin spray is available on the web. I bought some, and I’m not sure I trust that it’s really got oxytocin in it. Of course, maybe I’d trust it more to spay it up my nose before deciding if I trusted it. There’s some problem with that plan. I need a chemist.)

So, should you run out and buy some spray? Not yet, and maybe not ever (though, who knows). But here is an idea that could work for you. Suppose you and your love know you have to talk about something tricky or hard. My idea here assumes you are not already upset. In addition to the types of techniques we teach in our books and materials for couples (PREP), you could give each other a solid hug for a few minutes before talking. Heck, give it a try afterwards, too. Mutual hugs do not, currently, come with any government warning labels. And, studies suggest you’ll get some oxytocin released from a good hug. It also relieves stress. With this plan, it possible that the hug will boost oxytocin and, along with some basic communication ability or skills, you may just have a better talk than you’d otherwise expect. Are you waiting to inhale? Don’t. Try a hug.