Credit: Karin Dalziel
Credit: Karin Dalziel

Oxytocin: Still Not a Moral Molecule

Whenever the hormone oxytocin makes the news—and it does so regularly—the media can’t help but refer to it as the “love hormone”, “cuddle chemical” or “moral molecule”. Few substances enjoy such a positive public profile. Oxytocin, it is said, is at the core of all our virtues, from trust to empathy to cooperation.

This rose-tinted view is a sham.

As I’ve written before, oxytocin is more of a general social hormone—one that drives us to seek out social situations or that draws our attention to social cues. The results can be positive if we find ourselves in the right situation. Change the context, and oxytocin can reveal a dark side to its influence.

The latest example of this comes from Shaul Shalvi and Carsten de Dreu. They found that people who sniff oxytocin become more dishonest in a simple team game, but only if their lies benefit their group. If they play the game alone, oxytocin doesn’t change their behaviour for better or for worse. As de Dreu says, “This is the best evidence yet that oxytocin is not the ‘moral molecule,’. It doesn’t make people more moral or immoral. It shifts people’s focus from themselves to their group or tribe.”

I’ve written about the study in The Scientist, so head over there for the details. You might also enjoy my piece in Slate about the history of oxytocin hype and why it’s both dumb and dangerous.