Oxytocin Promotes Parochial Altruism

Researchers have long known that oxytocin, often called the “love hormone,” is linked to our sense of trust and the desire to connect with others. But according to researchers at the University of Amsterdam, oxytocin also appears to lead to “defensive” aggression—acts of of aggression against threatening outgroups.
A team of psychologists asked male volunteers play an economic game and found that those who received a nasal spray of oxytocin made financial decisions that were more altruistic toward members of their own group, keeping less money for themselves and donating more to the communal pool. Yet they were also more likely to punish members of a competing group—taking money away from them—when there was the possibility their own group could lose money if the other group chose to punish first. Because this type of aggression helps the ingroup become stronger—in the same way a soldier who risks his life fighting an enemy helps his country survive and thrive—researchers see it as an indirect form of cooperation they call “parochial altruism.”
As the researchers conclude:

Our findings show that oxytocin, a neuropeptide functioning as both a neurotransmitter and hormone, plays a critical role in driving in-group love and defensive (but not offensive) aggression toward out-groups. Perhaps offensive forms of out-group hate have their biological roots elsewhere, or perhaps these tendencies are primarily grounded in perceived in-group love and protectionism in competing out-groups. After all, if competing out-groups become strong and powerful, they become a threat to the in-group, and this in and of itself not only motivates in-group members to display in-group love but also motivates protectionism and preemptive strike. As shown here, this “tend and defend” form of parochial altruism is precisely what oxytocin modulates.

Category: Positive Psychology

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One Response

  1. Quite. This is the point that fans of religion-as-community so often ignore – an in-group implies an out-group. Community solidarity is not the unmixed blessing that many people like to think.

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