“Love Hormone” Oxytocin Is Choosy, But Not Necessarily Racist

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In his memorial speech for the victims of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords yesterday, President Obama urged Americans to use the tragedy to “sharpen our instincts for empathy.” But is human capacity for compassion—which seems to be driven at least in part by the so-called “love hormone” oxytocin—limited to caring for members of one’s own race or ethnic group?

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that oxytocin does increase preferences for people of one’s own ethnicity while simultaneously, but to a lesser extent, increasing prejudice against outsiders. Most coverage of the study has focused on its implications about the limitations of the “love hormone.” But what the media has largely missed is how flexible human perceptions of “insiders” and “outsiders are and how ethnicity is not always the determinant of who we see as “us” and who we see as “them.” (More on Time.com: Passing as Black: How Biracial Americans Choose Identity)

Writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade described the research this way:

As oxytocin comes into sharper focus, its social radius of action turns out to have definite limits. The love and trust it promotes are not toward the world in general, just toward a person’s in-group. Oxytocin turns out to be the hormone of the clan, not of universal brotherhood. Psychologists trying to specify its role have now concluded it is the agent of ethnocentrism.

The experiments involved Dutch men who were given either oxytocin or placebo. Survey research had previously found significant prejudice amongst the Dutch against both Muslims and Germans. In the first two passes, 70 men took the Implicit Association Test, which measures subconscious prejudice by looking at reaction time when connecting positive or negative words with members of a particular race or with names that suggest that ethnicity. Among the men on oxytocin, preference for native Dutch over Germans and Muslims increased.

In another set of experiments, moral dilemmas like deciding to deny one person access to a lifeboat to save five others were presented to Dutch men given either oxytocin or placebo. Those taking oxytocin were more likely to spare men with Dutch names while sacrificing those with Muslim or German names— on placebo, the name of the possible victim didn’t matter.

So does this mean that racism and ethnocentrism is an intransigent part of human nature, that we are biologically made to favor those like us and exclude those who are not? Actually, no. Previous work has shown that designating who is in the in-group and who remains outside is tremendously changeable. (More on Time.com: The Authentic Self:  How Do You Know if You’re Racist or Sexist?)

For example, an earlier study by the same scientists found that oxytocin made men more likely to make financial decisions that favor members of their own group and also promoted defensive aggression against members of another group— but there was a catch. The in-groups and out-groups were teams established by the scientists for the experiment, not chosen by race or ethnicity.

Similarly, another study found that oxytocin increased gloating when an opponent lost—and envy when the outsider won. But again, this study didn’t explicitly pit participants against members of another race (in fact, the opponent was really a computer, which was not revealed to the participants at the time).

Indeed, earlier research looked explicitly at the question of whether race and group loyalty are always unconsciously linked. In the experiment, participants viewed mixed race teams of men talking about a conflict with another team. In one condition, team members dressed alike—in the other, there were no visual cues as to who was on what team. (More on Time.com: Who’s White? Who’s Black? Who Knows?)

Afterwards, participants were asked to connect what each man had said, and to which race and team he belonged. When there were no visual cues about team membership, participants paid attention to the race of the speaker and rarely misidentified it, making twice as many errors about a speaker’s allegiance than they did about race. But when team members wore uniforms, allegiance errors fell—showing that race became much less important.

One final study highlights just how flexible and complex group membership is, and how we determine who’s in and who’s out. In this research, scientists studied the notoriously loyal soccer fans of Liverpool and Manchester United. In one condition, participants were engaged in a discussion of the merits of their own team—and after this, Liverpool fans were more likely to help an apparently injured person wearing their team shirt than they were to help if the person wore a Manchester jersey.

But here’s where it gets interesting. When participants saw the injured person after having had a discussion focused on their love for soccer as a sport, the fans were more likely to help someone wearing either team’s regalia than they were to help someone wearing nothing linked to what the Brits call football. (More on Time.com: On the Other Side of the Glass Ceiling, a Glass Cliff)

So, while oxytocin may give us a preference for people we see as being more like “us” than “them,” there’s lots of room for expanding our vision of who belongs inside what the President called “the circle of our concern.”  It may be hard to make it completely all-encompassing— but this research leaves clear that there is plenty of room for it to grow.