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Can Oxytocin Improve Fidelity Within Relationships?

By Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on November 15, 2012

Can Oxytocin Improve Fidelity Within Relationships?To read the news lately, certain folks in the U.S. military, the CIA and Congress should probably pay attention to new research that suggests the hormone oxytocin may promote fidelity within monogamous relationships.

According to new research found in The Journal of Neuroscience, the hormone oxytocin can help men in committed relationships choose to keep a greater distance between themselves and an unknown woman they find attractive.

Oxytocin, a multipurpose hormone produced in the hypothalamus region of the brain, plays a vital role in triggering childbirth and facilitating nursing and is involved in the formation of social bonds.

In humans and other animals, this brain chemical is known to promote attachments between parents and children, and between couples. Additionally, previous studies have shown oxytocin increases trust among people.

However, scientists had yet to determine what, if any, role oxytocin played in maintaining monogamous human relationships.

In the current study, researchers found that men in committed relationships who were given oxytocin kept a greater distance when approaching or being approached by an unknown woman they found attractive compared with those given a placebo.

In contrast, oxytocin had no effect on single men.

“Previous animal research in prairie voles identified oxytocin as major key for monogamous fidelity in animals,” said René Hurlemann, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Bonn said.

“Here, we provide the first evidence that oxytocin may have a similar role for humans.”

Researchers administered oxytocin or placebo via a nasal spray to a group of healthy, heterosexual males. Forty-five minutes later, the men were introduced to a female experimenter that they later described as “attractive.”

As the experimenter moved toward or away from the study volunteers, the men were asked to indicate when the experimenter was at an “ideal distance” as well as when the experimenter moved to a distance that felt “slightly uncomfortable.”

“Because oxytocin is known to increase trust in people, we expected men under the influence of the hormone to allow the female experimenter to come even closer, but the direct opposite happened,” Hurlemann said.

The researchers found oxytocin led the men in committed relationships, but not those who were single, to keep a greater distance (10-15 cm) between themselves and the woman.

The effect of oxytocin on the monogamous men was the same regardless of whether the female experimenter maintained eye contact or averted her gaze, or if the men were the ones approaching or withdrawing from the experimenter.

Significantly, oxytocin also had no effect on the men’s attitude toward the female experimenter — both those who received the oxytocin and the placebo rated the female experimenter as being equally attractive.

In a separate experiment, the researchers found oxytocin had no effect on the distance men kept between themselves and a male experimenter.

Although the research is preliminary, animal studies show that oxytocin is important for bond development with a partner. Accordingly, the posit that oxytocin can preserve a monogamous relationship is plausible.

“In monogamous prairie voles, we know that oxytocin plays an important role in the formation of the pair bond,” said Larry Young, Ph.D., an expert on oxytocin at Emory University who was not involved in the study.

“This study suggests that the general role of oxytocin in promoting monogamous behavior is conserved from rodents to man.”

Source: Society for Neuroscience

 

APA Reference
Nauert, R. (2012). Can Oxytocin Improve Fidelity Within Relationships?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 1, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2012/11/15/can-oxytocin-improve-fidelity-within-relationships/47728.html