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The dark side of the love drug – oxytocin linked to gloating, envy and aggression

Imagine for a moment that you could gain everyone’s trust in an instant – you could sell more, love more and accomplish more than you ever imagined. Or so says the online marketing spiel for the drug oxytocin…

Oxytocin can actually decrease trust and enhance negative emotions. MichaelKuhn

Imagine for a moment that you could gain everyone’s trust in an instant – you could sell more, love more and accomplish more than you ever imagined. Or so says the online marketing spiel for the drug oxytocin.

According to verolabs.com, you can buy a bottle of oxytocin – a two-week supply – for only $29.95. Or if you really have trust issues, you can buy a year’s supply for just $179.95.

The idea is to spray this “love drug” on yourself in the morning to elicit strong feelings of trust from those you encounter. In effect, you suddenly develop the skills and seductive qualities of a Casanova. Or, if you’re in sales, your commissions should go through the roof.

While there’s no evidence to support verolabs' claim that spraying “Liquid Trust” on your clothes will make people trust you more, research from 2005 has shown oxytocin can dramatically alter human behaviour.

So what is oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a mammalian hormone produced in the brain. It’s well known for its role in orgasm, the birthing processing and milk ejection during breastfeeding.

More recently, a synthetic form of oxytocin – administered nasally – has been shown to promote trust, altruism, emotion recognition and increase sensitivity to eye gaze.

Oxytocin may make men more positive and loving towards their sexual partners. We suspect this is due to a shift in the perception and processing of positive social cues.

The drug may also suppress the motivation for people with generalised anxiety disorders to withdraw from social situations. Neuroimaging studies have reported that oxytocin decreases activation in the amygdala – a key region in the “fear” network in the brain.

But we’re beginning to realise that oxytocin has a number of other unexpected effects – it can actually increase negative emotions.

A 2009 study published in Biological Psychiatry reported that oxytocin enhanced a wide range of social behaviours, including increasing the negative emotions of gloating and envy.

And last year a study on borderline personality disorder – which is associated with significant difficulties in trusting others – found oxytocin actually decreased trust. This was clearly not what the authors hypothesised.

Further examination of this data revealed the results were driven by participants who were sensitive to rejection. Interestingly, oxytocin promoted cooperative behaviour in the participants who sought intimacy.

The authors warned that their findings – based on once-off administration of oxytocin – shouldn’t be a deterrent for doctors to prescribe oxytocin. They said the drug may actually help patients learn new skills through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a common treatment for a variety of conditions including mood and anxiety disorders.

New findings published this month in Psychological Science indicate mums who breastfeed their infants are more likely to show a “mama bear” effect – where both cooperative and aggressive emotions are exaggerated – than those mums who bottle feed. These breastfeeding mums become fiercer and friendlier than those who don’t.

Interpreting these findings

We recently published a review of the scientific literature on oxytocin and proposed that the drug may increase the desire to approach people in social situations. This is known as approach-related motivation in psychology.

While approach-related behaviours are generally positive (such as trust and empathy), they also include negative emotions such as anger and aggression.

So why should we study oxytocin’s effects on the motivation to approach people or move back, rather than positive or negative emotions?

Neuroscience research indicates the brain processes emotional stimuli along an approach-withdrawal dimension, rather than a positive-negative dimension.

In our review, we suggest that while gloating, envy and anger are negative emotions, they are also approach-related:

  • Anger involves the motivation to approach the target to which the anger is directed. Research has shown brain activation during anger is similar to that reported during the experience of positive emotions.

  • When we experience envy, we’re motivated to approach the person we’re envious of. Whether or not we do is another issue.

  • Gloaters maliciously gain pleasure from another’s misfortune. This is an approach-related behaviour, albeit a negative one in this context.

More work is needed to better understand the role of oxytocin in human emotions, and in emotional experience in particular – as opposed to emotion perception.

This is an important distinction because our perception of another person’s anger (which elicits a fight or flight response) is very different from the way we experience anger.

We’re more likely to approach the person we’re angry with, and oxytocin may facilitate this effect.

Be warned

It’s easy to see why online shoppers are drawn to buy oxytocin, with promises of becoming an overnight Casanova or sales guru. But before you start clicking away on verolabs.com remember, it’s unlikely that spraying oxytocin on your clothes will have much impact.

And even if it did, it could come with an equal dose of anger or agression.

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