Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Oxytocin: I Feel Your Pain

It’s hard for me to get tired of Oxytocin stories. I’m quite attached to them. Here’s the latest, which you can read about in a story by the BBC (here). Professor Keith Kendrick, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, conducted a pretty straightforward laboratory study of people’s reactions to different, emotionally evocative pictures (child crying, grieving older man, etc.). He found that the emotional response of men to these types of pictures was as strong as the reactions women typically have when the men had a dose of oxytocin (nasally). Usually, women have stronger “empathic” responses to such pictures than men, which could be for scads of reasons of the sort I’ve written about recently. But men closed the gap if they had the spray of oxytocin and didn’t if they has a placebo. I find this next part extra interesting and conscientious on the part of the researchers. While the men behaved differently based on oxytocin, they could not accurately guess whether they had gotten the oxytocin spray or something inert. That’s compelling.

In a second laboratory experiment, the researchers showed that those who got a little jolt of oxytocin were more reactive to, or responsive to, smiling faces that reward learning. That’s just that much more evidence of the role oxytocin might play in sociability, bonding, and caring for others.

I remember when I first read about oxytocin spray; it was in a report of a study by economist Paul Zak. He was showing that people made more trusting bargains in classic game theory scenarios in the lab if they had a bit of oxytocin (again, nasally). When I first read of that work, I thought, “How soon before this shows up in bars.” After all, all the evidence suggests that oxytocin moves people in the direction of trusting others. Zak has even speculated that the stress of poverty depresses oxytocin levels to such a degree across a community that this is just one factor among many that makes it hard to turn around deeply entrenched poverty—people cannot gain on trusting others, and without some basic trust, you can’t really have an economy that works well (or a community). Might car dealerships want oxytocin spray wafting through their waiting rooms? Obviously, car manufacturers need people to trust them or else they are not going to buy their product. Maybe that new car scent should be laced with oxytocin? Especially in test drives! (That could make that deception so like the effect of un-careful dating as to not really be funny but sobering.)

But, back to bars. Since there are really date rape drugs that seem to have some effect, would people misuse oxytocin in a similar way to influence others? I know at one point Paul Zak didn’t think this type of thing would happen, but you never know. Something that turns out to have a clear effect that can be used for good might also be used in less good ways. There’s something in the air.