Oxytocin isn’t the “love” hormone — so what is it?


Terrorists, you may assume, must have low levels of oxytocin. Why else would they be willling to kill strangers for the sake of some twisted ideological cause?

A 2010 study throws doubt on this assumption. Researchers found that oxytocin makes you believe your group is superior to other groups. It could even make you willing to use violence to defend your group against a perceived threat.

Oxytocin also makes you conform to group norms.

Before, it was assumed that testosterone was the main hormone promoting violence. But it seems that while testosterone promotes violence for personal gain, oxytocin promotes violence for the benefit of your group.

Imagine a mother bear killing to protect her cub. This is an act of violence linked to oxytocin. Humans are the most social creatures on the planet. Our groups are large. Are acts of terrorism fuelled by this oxytonergic mechanism?

If so, what is it exactly that oxytocin does?

First, it is important to note that simply being around other people makes you stressed. Your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate goes up. You are more alert. Why? Because the presence of others is a potential danger. It’s hard to tell whether other people can be trusted. And there is a risk of being evaluated negatively by people in your group. What if you make a fool of yourself? You could get ejected from the group.

Anxiety is linked to higher activity in your amygdala. Oxytocin reduces this activity. It sends a signal: “I can trust this person.” Your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate goes down. You are more calm.

The link between a mother and her baby is oxytocinergic. A newborn child trusts his or her mother.

The trust between you and other people, however, must be learned. And conformity is an excellent way of doing so.

If people act and look the same, you can be sure that they belong to the same group. If you can trust one of them, you can probably trust the other. When you are conforming to the norms of your group, you are telling them: “I can be trusted; I’m one of you.”

Evidence in favor of this can be seen in two developmental disorders: William’s syndrome and autism. Children with William’s syndrome trust strangers. They will trust everyone they meet, regardless of whether they are in their group or not. Children with autism will often not even trust their mother. What’s the difference betwen the two disorders? Children with William’s syndrome have high levels of oxytocin, while children with autism have low levels.

Oxytocin does more than reduce anxiety, however. It uses dopamine and endorphins to strenghten social bonds. Dopamine produces motivation. Endorphins produces enjoyment. Oxytocin + dopamine = social motivation. Oxytocin + endorphins = social enjoyment.

If we take all of this and try to sum up the effects of oxytocin in a single statement, what would it be? Maybe this: Oxytocin creates tribes. It’s the “tribe” hormone.

Let’s take another look at testosterone. Earlier, we we said that testosterone promoted violence for personal gains. Testosterone is in fact the mirror opposite of oxytocin. It is the hormone of selfishness.

In the last 20,000 years, our brains have shrunk by the size of a tennis ball. Why? Because levels of testosterone has gone down. And testosterone makes the body larger.

Why did we lose testosterone?

One hypothesis is that human tribes killed high-testosterone individuals. Because they were selfish.

And if so, oxytocin may in fact be responsible.

While oxytocin may promote violence between tribes, it is also making tribes in the world grow bigger.

It may not be the hormone of love, but it remains vital to the existence of human bonds. So when other tribes threaten ours, we will stand together. We have to be careful, though. Because we may confuse the small tribe attacking us with the larger tribe they are part of.

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