People with higher levels of oxytocin, known as the “bonding” hormone, are more likely to give generously to charities that help suffering humans, according to scientists at the University of Bonn Hospital.
But this same high-oxytocin group is not more inclined to give generously to projects that help the environment. In fact, high levels of the cuddle hormone may even lead to less giving toward purely environmental projects.
The hormone oxytocin is known to strengthen social ties. It is particularly high in people newly in love, during sex, and during breastfeeding.
The study involved 172 participants. Each subject received 10 Euros ($10.50) and was able to decide whether he would keep the amount for himself or whether he wished to donate all or only part of it.
There were two real charity projects to choose from: One was an ecological project for rainforest reforestation in the Congo and the other was a social project to improve the livelihoods of the native inhabitants in the Congo region.
Using saliva samples, the researchers tested the participants’ oxytocin level during the investigation.
“Since projects for environmental sustainability also always have a social dimension, we initially suspected that oxytocin generally increases the willingness to donate to such projects,” said lead author Dr. Nina Marsh.
As expected, participants with higher saliva levels of oxytocin donated far more generously to social projects, compared to those with lower hormone levels. However, what was surprising was the fact that this link was not seen in the case of environmental projects. Whether there were high or low amounts of the body’s own oxytocin did not make a difference with regard to donation behavior.
In a second experiment, the researchers administered the bonding hormone to some of the test subjects via a nasal spray; the other participants received a placebo as control.
“The pattern repeated itself: On average, the oxytocin group donated twice as much for social projects — 4.50 euros ($4.76) more on average — than did the untreated participants,” says Marsh.
In the case of the environmental project, however, the willingness to donate even decreased through oxytocin. While the placebo subjects donated an average of 4.42 euros of the ten euros, participants receiving oxytocin were stingier, donating only 2.42 euros.
Finally, the subjects were shown a catalogue of various foods and clothing items. They could either select a conventionally produced version or choose the sustainable variant. They were asked to indicate the amount of money they would be willing to pay.
One catalogue listed socially conscious products which featured good working conditions. The other catalogue showed goods produced in an environmentally friendly way, in which the emphasis was placed on maintaining biodiversity. The participants each saw only one of the two catalogues.
The findings showed that those receiving oxytocin selected more products produced in a socially sustainable way than did the placebo participants. They were even willing to pay twice as much money for the socially sustainable products than they were for the conventional products.
In the group with the environmentally oriented catalogue, however, there was virtually no oxytocin influence.
“The results show that subjects with low oxytocin levels tend to support environmental sustainability projects, since they donated an average of nearly half of their money for this purpose,” Marsh said. “But under the influence of oxytocin, there is a shift in priorities which favors social altrusim.”
Dr. René Hurlemann, director of the Department of Medical Psychology at the Clinic and Polyclinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy summarizes, “If support is needed for environmental projects, the social message of the project should be emphasized to also reach those persons who have elevated oxytocin levels.”
The study is reported in The Journal of Neuroscience.