by Kenta Hasui
“Be nice.” “Stop being such a jerk!” “I just want to help . . . ”
Many of us have these phrases heard throughout our lives, whether from our parents, teachers, friends, T.V. shows or movies. Being nice has become a given, something obvious that everybody should strive towards. But throughout this past century the discovery of the hormone oxytocin has changed how scientists and psychologists think about terms such as nice, mean, helpful, loving or altruistic.
First discovered in 1909 by scientist Sir Henry Dale, oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus and passed through the posterior pituitary gland into the bloodstream. (Lee, Macbeth, Pagani & Young, 2009). Dale noticed that injecting an extract of oxytocin from a human into a pregnant cat contracted the cat’s uterus. He thus named the substance oxytocin, after the Greek words “quick” and “birth.” For years, oxytocin was thought primarily as a hormone for mothers during or right after childbirth.
However, the oxytocin receptors that were found in a pregnant woman’s uterus were also found in other tissues, regardless of the person’s sex. These receptor sites ranged from the heart, brain, and reproductive tract. Thus recent research have focused on the effects of oxytocin on the brain and social behavior. One such study, led by researchers from Concordia University (2011), was a randomized double-blind study on 100 university students gauging the effects of an oxytocin nasal spray . Half of the subjects inhaled oxytocin from a nasal spray while the other half received a placebo. They then completed questionnaires on their personality after 90 minutes, testing for extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism.
The subjects who received the nasal spray had higher ratings of extraversion, positive emotions, warmth, openness to ideas, trust and altruism. The researchers believed that people’s self-perception of these personality traits were important for navigating social situations. Thus the researchers concluded that this positive self-perception could lead to an increase in positive social behaviors.
Other studies have presented similar results for the relationship between oxytocin and trust in humans. Fehr (2005) demonstrated that oxytocin affects how willing a person is to accept risks through interactions with other people. It does not lead people to take more risks regardless of the situation – they must be social risks (DeAngelis, 2008). Similarly, a study from the University of Buffalo (2012) concluded that people with certain versions of oxytocin receptor genes were more likely to be generous and sociable (University at Buffalo, 2012).
However, it’s important to keep in mind that oxytocin is not a perfect hormone for niceness. Although oxytocin promotes trust in one’s in-group, it promotes distrust in one’s out-group , or the people seen as different. De Dreu (2010) illustrated that doses of oxytocin made people much more likely to help an ethnic in-group at the expense of the out-group In one experiment, Dutch students were given moral dilemmas in which a choice must be made about whether to help a person onto an overloaded lifeboat and drown the five on it, or save five people in front of a train by throwing a bystander onto the tracks. The five people who were to be saved had no name, but the sacrificial victim had either a Dutch or a Muslim name. These two nationalities were chosen because of a poll in 2005 illustrating that 51% of Dutch citizens held unfavorable opinions about Muslims. Thus the Dutch were the in group and the Muslims were the out group. Subjects who had who had sniffed a dose of oxytocin were far more likely to sacrifice the Muhammads than the Maartens (De Dreu, 2010). In another experiment, De Dreu asked participants to press a key when shown a pair of words. One word had either a positive or negative connotation, and the other was a common Dutch first name such as Peter, or an out-group name such as Ahmad to represent Muslims.