There is good news and not-so-good news about the hormone oxytocin. It seems to promote a number of essential social functions and has been found to enhance social behaviors for people with autism. But new research suggests a downside as well.
Oxytocin has sometimes been called the “love hormone” or “trust hormone” as studies have shown the chemical to be associated with the ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships and psychological boundaries with other people. Studies have also found that oxytocin can increase altruism, generosity, and other behaviors that are good for social life.
But a study by Andrew Kemp, Ph.D., of the University of Sydney and published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, suggests the actions of oxytocin are more complex than what is commonly believed.
Kemp and coauthor Adam Guastella, Ph.D., report that a number of studies have shown that oxytocin accents a variety of emotions. For example, recent studies have found that people who were given oxytocin, then played a game of chance with a fake opponent, were more envious and gloating.
These are also both social emotions, but they’re negative. “It kind of rocked the research world a little bit,” Kemp said. That led some researchers to think that oxytocin promotes social emotions in general, both negative and positive.
But Kemp and Guastella think oxytocin’s role is slightly different.
Rather than supporting all social emotions, they think it plays a role in promoting what psychologists call approach-related emotions. These are emotions that have to do with wanting something, as opposed to shrinking away.
“If you look at the Oxford English Dictionary for envy, it says that the definition of envy is to wish oneself on a level with another, in happiness or with the possession of something desirable,” Kemp said. “It’s an approach-related emotion: I want what you have.”
Gloating is also about approach, he says; people who are gloating are happy—a positive, approach-related emotion—about having more than their opponent and about that person’s misfortune.
If Kemp and Guastella are right, that could mean that oxytocin could also increase anger and other negative approach-related emotions.
Indeed, if substantiated with research, the knowledge that oxytocin could enhance a variety of emotions would limit use of oxytocin as a facilitator of psychiatric care.
“If you were to take a convicted criminal with a tendency towards aggression and give him oxytocin to make him more social, and if that were to enhance anger as opposed to suppressing anger, then that has very substantial implications,” Kemp said.
Further research will show more about what emotions are promoted by oxytocin, Kemp says.
“This research is really important because we don’t want to go ahead and attempt to treat a range and variety of psychiatric disorders with oxytocin without fully understanding the impact this may have on emotion and mood.”