The dark side of oxytocin

The ‘love hormone’ oxytocin helps individuals attack rival groups by enabling them to coordinate their behavior efficiently with members of their own group.

Image credit: Quino Al (CC0)

Conflict between groups is a recurring theme in human history. We tend to form social bonds with others who share the same characteristics as ourselves, whether that is nationality, ethnicity, or supporting the same football team. Individuals that belong to the same group as us comprise our ‘in-group’. All other individuals make up our ‘out-groups’. Competition and conflict with out-groups – from benign sporting rivalry to warfare – has a key role in shaping human cultures and societies.

Such conflict often requires individuals to act in ways that harm their own self-interests. It also requires them to coordinate their actions with other members of their in-group. How does our biology drive this behavior? When small groups prepare for conflict with other groups, they often perform social bonding routines and rituals. These trigger the brain to release a hormone called oxytocin into the bloodstream. Known as the ‘love hormone’, oxytocin helps promote pair bonding as well as social bonding with in-group members. Studies in both humans and monkeys show that boosting oxytocin levels artificially via a nasal spray makes individuals more trusting and cooperative.

But Zhang et al. now show that the ‘love hormone’ also helps individuals launch more coordinated ‘attacks’ on out-groups. In a study involving a multi-round economic contest game between groups of ‘attackers’ and ‘defenders’, oxytocin did not make attackers less aggressive. Instead it enabled them to better coordinate their attacks. Each contest game involved three attackers individually contributing money to a group pool to outbid the other group and win more money, and three defenders making similar contributions to their own group pool to defend it against the rivals’ attacks and protect themselves from losing all their money. Attackers who used an oxytocin nasal spray were better at tracking their rivals' defensive strategies than attackers whose nasal spray contained a placebo. Under the influence of oxytocin, the attackers timed their strikes to occur when their rivals were vulnerable. Over time, the oxytocin users became better at coordinating their behavior with other members of their in-group. This resulted in more earnings.

Success – and even survival – in intergroup conflicts depends on how willing individuals are to make contributions that incur a personal cost. They also depend on how well individuals coordinate their contributions. Social strategies, such as leading by example, and neurobiological mechanisms such as oxytocin can both help achieve the coordination needed to exploit out-group rivals.