Cuddle Chemical? Moral Molecule? Not So Fast

Jul 24, 2012 • Books, Feature, News, Research

Hugs! Oxytocin the cuddle hormone

Meet Paul Zak — or, as he is being called by certain media outlets, Dr. Love. Dr. Love believes in hugging and that the hormone oxytocin determines morality.

Zak’s original field, it turns out, is economics, a far cry from the hearts and teddy bears we imagine when we consider his nickname. But after taking part in experiments on generosity, Zak stumbled on the importance of trust in interactions, which led him, rather inevitably, to research oxytocin. Oxytocin, you might remember, is a hormone that has been linked previously to bonding — between mothers and children primarily, but also between partners. What Zak has done is take the research a step further, arguing in his recent book, The Moral Molecule, that oxytocin plays a role in determining whether we are good or evil.

The media is going crazy over it. The problem? The science is not all there. Following a fawning interview in the Guardian with Dr. Love, the award-winning science writer Ed Yong took both the publication and Dr. Love to task on Twitter. This is a summary of what Yong had to say about the “moral molecule”:

Since 2005 there have been many studies showing that getting an artificial oxytocin boost increases empathy and trust, etc., however, there is also a lot of research that indicates oxytocin is involved in envy and schadenfreude (pleasure we derive from the misery and misfortunes of others). It has also been seen to affect whether subjects recall their mothers as caring or not depending on the subject’s original mindset.

Oxytocin has also had a hand in reducing trust and cooperation in people with borderline personality disorder. It’s not just people with mental disorders that are affected negatively, either. Studies show oxytocin can encourage trust and cooperation or discourage it based on the situation in which subjects find themselves. And oxytocin seems to strongly promote in-group bias (a preference for people in your circles as opposed to those considered outsiders), as well.

Having provided this evidence, Yong goes on:

So rather than cataloguing endless effects, what we need to do is understand what oxytocin actually does. A hypothesis: oxytocin is a chemical spotlight that makes social cues more salient. It could boost trust or worsen social sensitivity. Another hypothesis: it motivates people to seek social connections. It could increase trust, but also increase favoritism and in-group bias. Either way, none of this is consistent with oxytocin being just a “moral molecule” or “cuddle chemical.” And really why would it be? Oxytocin is evolutionarily ancient. Is it a “moral molecule” for invertebrates too?

Why am I ranting about this? Because this oxytocin hype means vulnerable people are buying it to medicate their kids. Lots of clinical trials are looking at oxytocin for autism, schizophrenia, etc., but worried parents buying nasal sprays is different. Look at everything I’ve tweeted. Oxytocin’s effects vary according to individuals and situations. It could make things worse, not better. Clinicians get this. [The first author of the seminal trust experiment Paul Zak often gets sole credit for, Markus] Heinrichs says: “[Oxytocin] isn’t the wonder drug that makes everyone happy and social. From the early data, it’s very clear that oxytocin alone will do nothing.”

Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, a brilliant, tightly written book about the history of toxicology and the many chemicals our species have used over time to poison ourselves and one another (accidentally and not), agrees. In a post about the oxytocin hype, she reiterates: “And as Yong notes, other reporters at The Guardian have also written critically about oxytocin’s warm and fuzzy reputation, such as a Gareth Leng piece warning that so-called oxytocin sprays and other medications that promise to influence behavior are basically the stuff of wishful thinking.”

So there you have it. The truth is infinitely more complex than PR agencies trying to sell books and media institutions looking for pageviews would have us believe. If you’re curious about just how complex it gets, read Ed Yong’s oxytocin piece for New Scientist (PDF).

Header image by Julie McLeod.