The dark side of Oxytocin

For a hormone, oxytocin is pretty famous. It’s the “cuddle chemical”—the hormone that helps mothers bond with their babies. Salespeople can buy oxytocin spray on the internet, to make their clients trust them. It’s known for promoting positive feelings, but more recent research has found that oxytocin can promote negative emotions, too. The authors of a new review article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, takes a  look at what oxytocin is really doing.

Oxytocin’s positive effects are well known. Experiments have found that, in games in which you can choose to cooperate or not, people who are given more trust their fellow players more. Clinical trials have found that oxytocin can help people with autism, who have trouble in social situations. Studies have also found that oxytocin can increase altruism, generosity, and other behaviors that are good for social life.

But the warm fuzzy side of oxytocin isn’t the whole story. “Quite a number of studies have shown it’s actually not that simple,” says Andrew Kemp of the University of Sydney, who cowrote the paper with his colleague Adam Guastella. Recent studies have found that people who were given oxytocin, then played a game of chance with a fake opponent, had more envy and gloating. These are also both social emotions, but they’re negative. “It kind of rocked the research world a little bit,” Kemp says. That led some researchers to think that oxytocin promotes social emotions in general, both negative and positive.

But Kemp and Guastella think oxytocin’s role is slightly different. Rather than supporting all social emotions, they think it plays a role in promoting what psychologists call approach-related emotions. These are emotions that have to do with wanting something, as opposed to shrinking away. “If you look at the Oxford English Dictionary for envy, it says that the definition of envy is to wish oneself on a level with another, in happiness or with the possession of something desirable,” Kemp says. “It’s an approach-related emotion: I want what you have.” Gloating is also about approach, he says; people who are gloating are happy—a positive, approach-related emotion—about having more than their opponent and about that person’s misfortune.

If Kemp and Guastella are right, that could mean that oxytocin could also increase anger and other negative approach-related emotions. That could have important implications for people who are studying how to use oxytocin as a psychiatric treatment. “If you were to take a convicted criminal with a tendency towards aggression and give him oxytocin to make him more social, and if that were to enhance anger as opposed to suppressing anger, then that has very substantial implications,” Kemp says.

Further research will show more about what emotions are promoted by oxytocin, Kemp says. “This research is really important because we don’t want to go ahead and attempt to treat a range and variety of psychiatric disorders with oxytocin without fully understanding the impact this may have on emotion and mood.”

Related Stories

A hormone that enhances one's memory of happy faces

Jul 28, 2008

Oxytocin was originally studied as the "milk let-down factor," i.e., a hormone that was necessary for breast-feeding. However, there is increasing evidence that this hormone also plays an important role in social bonding ...

Research finds the hormone of trust has limits

Jan 12, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus in the brain, and has been shown to make people trust each other more and promote feelings of love. But this hormone has now been found to ...

The narrow line between love and jealousy

Nov 12, 2009

A new study carried out at the University of Haifa has found that the hormone oxytocin, the "love hormone", which affects behaviors such as trust, empathy and generosity, also affects opposite behaviors, such as jealousy ...

Studies expand oxytocin's role beyond 'cuddle hormone'

Nov 15, 2010

New human research suggests the chemical oxytocin — dubbed the "cuddle hormone" because of its importance in bonding between romantic partners and mothers and children — also influences feelings of well-being and ...

Recommended for you

Aspirin shown to benefit schizophrenia treatment

11 hours ago

A new study shows that some anti-inflammatory medicines, such as aspirin, estrogen, and Fluimucil, can improve the efficacy of existing schizophrenia treatments. This work is being presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Drcandanesin
not rated yet Aug 02, 2011
It may be true, because it is known that, oxtocin effects emotional system through both dopamine and serotonine. Both chemicals have positive as well as negative sides on the target tissue, depending on the locus they effect in the nervous system. That is; to my knowledge, mid brain and brain stem serotonine induce aggression, whereas prefrontal serotonine inhibit the amygdala response. Dopamine act for reward and learning but it also act through non-rewarding conditional learning. Conditional learning of a knowledge of doing some things that may be against or harmful for the person's self (i.e. OCD). Though oxtocin may act regarding the persons de facto emotional status. It may reward for cudling and it may reward for killing. Any chemical is double edge sword for the body. Regards. Candan Esin MD