The Mr. Hyde of Oxytocin

by theowl2 min read10th May 201533 comments


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What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘oxytocin?’ Is it ‘love’, ‘cuddle hormone’, ‘bliss?’ If so, you may be more aware of the Dr. Jekyll of oxytocin rather than the Mr. Hyde. Oxytocin, just like almost every biochemical molecule, is hormetic. It confers positive effects in one context, but negative in another. In the case of oxytocin, a person with a secure attachment style interacting with a familiar group of people that he/she likes, will experience the positive effects of oxytocin. However, someone with an anxious attachment style interacting with a group of people that he/she does not yet fully feel trusting and familiar with will experience the negative effects of oxytocin. Why does the same molecule produce pro-social effects for one person, yet anti-social for another?

Oxytocin redirects more attentional resources towards noticing social stimuli. This increase in the salience of social information enhances the ability to detect expressions, recognize faces, and other social cues. The effect of increased social cognitive abilities is constrained by personality traits and situational context, resulting in either anti-social or pro-social behavior.

Oxytocin also promotes more interest in social cues by increasing affiliative motivation, a desire to get along with others. The increase in affiliative motivation results in pro-social behavior if the person already tends towards having an interest in bonding with people outside their close friend circle. However, an increase in affiliative motivation for those with anxious attachment styles results in a stronger pursuit to feel closer to only the person he/she is attached to.

A couple, Tom and Mary, have just moved to a new town and are attending their first service at a new church. Tom has a secure attachment style and isn’t prone to social anxieties. Tom is optimistic, has a positive bias, is generally content, and sees people as good, trusting, and friendly. Mary has an anxious attachment style, a negative bias, social anxiety, baseline mood neutral, and sees people as potential threats, competitors, untrustworthy, selfish, and egotistical. During the service, Tom and Mary’s oxytocin levels increase by being in a community. As a result of their different dispositions, Tom exhibits the Dr. Jekyll of oxytocin, whereas Mary exhibits the Mr. Hyde.

At the end of the service, Mary determines that she doesn’t like the church, whereas Tom thinks it is perfect. Mary felt that the people were judgmental and that they didn’t like her and Tom. Tom felt that the people were friendly, accepting, and eager for them to join.

Most social cues are ambiguous. A person’s character traits are instrumental in  interpreting the cues as negative or positive. Tom is more likely to interpret facial expressions as positive, whereas Mary sees them as negative. Tom interprets neutral expressions to indicate acceptance, kindness, and friendliness. Mary sees neutral expressions as judgmental and unkind. This creates a fear of rejection, feeling threatened, and propagates a negative bias.

The increase in oxytocin leads to quicker detection and interpretation of facial expressions. Interpreting inchoate facial expressions fosters interpretations based on expectations versus what is actually intended. A person is starting to smile, but before the smile is developed, Mary believes that the person is about to laugh and ridicule her. Mary then scowls at her, turning what was going to be a smile into a negative expression. Tom interprets the inchoate expression as a smile, smiles, and turns the inchoate expression into a genuine smile.

Oxytocin amplifies one’s character traits of pro-social or anti-social tendencies. Oxytocin does increase the feelings of bonding for all, but in different ways. People with pro-social tendencies will feel closer to their communities and greater circle of friends. People with anti-social tendencies will just feel closer to their close circle of friends and people they already trust.

Cross-posted from my blog:

References: by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.

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33 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:03 PM
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Why are you confident in the claims you are making about Oxytocin ?

In particular: the first reference describes three hypotheses about how oxytocin does what it does (the two described here, plus a third: generalized reduction in anxiety) and says: these all seem kinda plausible, especially the one about increasing the salience of social cues, but we don't know which if any are actually real and further research is needed to figure that out. Has that further research now been done and decisively confirmed two of the paper's hypotheses while decisively refuting the third? The paper lists understanding the interactions between these hypothetical mechanisms for oxytocin and the individual context as an open problem. Has further research now been done that conclusively settles that problem?

The claims made in this article seem plausible enough. But it would be useful to know how much support they actually have.

I'd be interested in this as well.

I tend to have trust issues, and thought that oxytocin lozenges might make me a little more trusting, and thereby likable, on job interviews.

The premise here seems to be that it would just pump up the paranoia if I have the "anxious attachment style", which seems likely enough.

One example study:

FYI, my solution to my trust issues has been to accept them, and attack the other side of the trust coin: I remain as untrusting as before, I simply care less about the failure modes.

For me personally, this makes things a lot more entertaining. It becomes a game of seeing if I can predict if someone is going to violate my trust or not - I trust them with something trivial and unimportant to see what will happen. I expect and anticipate failure a lot of the time from my lab rats, and am usually pleasantly surprised when I don't get it.

Over time I build up models of the people I can trust in various ways, but even with the best of them it winds up looking like airport landing times: even the most reliable route fails fairly often, but as long as it doesn't cause cascading effects that's ok.

With the job interview, it's more of a one shot deal. Any solution for that scenario?

I simply care less about the failure modes.

The trouble is I want to be more trusting and open exactly in those instances when I care more about the outcome, when something significant is on the line.

Practice when it doesn't matter so that it comes as second nature when it does.

Before using Oxycontin in a job interview I would test it in other settings with lower stakes first.

Nasal Spray Oxycontin doesn't cross the blood brain barrier.

What Oxycontin actually does seems to be that it makes fascia contract. It changes fascia tension patterns in your body. Those matter for emotional management and for how you are perceived by other people. Unfortunately that means the effects are complex and there very little published research on how fascia tension patterns interact with emotions as the psychology department likes to ignore the body and treats it as a black box.

Using OxyContin(tm) for a job interview seems like a distinctly bad idea. Particularly if the employer asks for drug screening.. If you absolutely have to, I suggest sticking with Oxytocin.

I confused the substances and trusted outcomplete when I shouldn't have. But what I said does apply to fascia speak about Oxytocin (my source is the book Anatomy Trains).

As far as the blood brain barrier goes:

But not everyone does. Some doubt that nasal oxytocin even gets into the brain at all. Oxytocin is a peptide molecule, which means it can’t cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the central nervous system

The timeframe for the effect on fascia seems also to be about right (from Anatomy Trains):

The contraction, when it occurs, comes on very slowly compared to any muscle contraction, building over 20- 30 minutes and sustaining for more than an hour before slowly subsiding.

The neuroskeptic says:

many nasal oxytocin studies use a time delay of 30 or 45 minutes.

I think there is more evidence it crosses (two studies with spinal measures) than it does not (0 studies). For (almost) direct measures check out Neumann, Inga D., et al., 2013 and Born, 2002. There are great many studies showing effects that could only be caused by encephalic neuromodulation. If it does not cross it, then it should cause increased encephalic levels of some neurochemical with the exact same profile, but that would be really weird.

Fix the formatting.

To clarify this complaint: It looks like the post was made by copy-and-paste from some word processor, and has picked up some unusual formatting that way. All that formatting should be removed, to make the article match the default formatting of the site.

Thanks for clarifying the complaint. Is there a recommended way to fix the formatting? I copied and pasted it from my blog. I didn't realize that there was a specific format to follow.

[-][anonymous]6y 3

I usually copy-paste things to notepad and then from there.

ctrl-shift-v is sometimes 'paste without formatting', depending on the application, the OS and the phase of the moon. Worth a shot, anyway.

Maybe try pasting the text in to a text area that doesn't support formatting (say a LW comment box) and then copy-paste that back in to the article composition area?

[-][anonymous]6y 2


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Oxytocin redirects more attentional resources towards noticing social stimuli.

What are "attentional resources"?

A brain can only focus on so many things at one time. Attention is considered a resource. Thus oxytocin promotes paying more attention to people's facial expressions rather than other things happening around there.

rather than other things happening around there.

Which other things get less "attention"? Are there studies for this?

Most social cues are ambiguous. A person’s character traits are instrumental in interpreting the cues as negative or positive.

This would mean social cues are really bad at reliably conveying information. That seems detrimental to both signalers and recipients. Why wouldn't people evolve better cues, or supplement with more explicit signaling, like words?

This would mean social cues are really bad at reliably conveying information. That seems detrimental to both signalers and recipients.

It's complicated :-) Social cues do not aim to "reliably convey information" -- that's what words are for (and in the extreme case, that's what legalese is -- a way to express meaning reliably).

Social cues are ambiguous because it's a feature, not a bug. The ambiguity allows a considerably amount of "free play" (to use a term out of mechanics) and it's a very useful thing. For example, social cues allow you to express interest without commitment or to express disapproval without giving offense. They allow you to hint, to explore, to go back and forth -- to create a fluid situation with possibilities.

Maybe we meant different things by "cues". The word does seem to mean something non-explicit. Since most messages can be made explicit, keeping them implicit is useful to remain low-key, avoid giving offence or have plausible deniability.

Under that reading, the claim that "most social cues are ambiguous" is almost tautological: if they were unambiguous, they wouldn't be called cues. This applies to nonverbal signals too: when a person is angry and isn't trying to hide it, everyone can tell.

I had understood the post differently, but now I'm no longer sure if I was right. Is this what you meant?

I would probably define "cue" as "a signal about what you are expected to do". Ambiguity is not its defining feature, plenty of social cues are not ambiguous at all. Instead, cues are ignorable and in that respect they are different from direct commands or requests.

Also, in this context there is some ambiguity about ambiguity :-) Is it the case that the signal is deliberately, intentionally ambiguous? That happens a lot in e.g. flirting. Or is it the case that the signal is intended to be straightforward, but the recipient has trouble deciphering it? I suspect that has much to do with not being sufficiently well versed in the local culture, its symbols and ways of expressing itself.

This would mean social cues are really bad at reliably conveying information. That seems detrimental to both signalers and recipients. Why wouldn't people evolve better cues, or supplement with more explicit signaling, like words?

Because social cues are about lying more effectively, not conveying information reliably.

Whether or not a cue is truthful, what's surprising is the idea that it would be unclear - that people would disagree on what it's intended to mean.

Disagreements on interpretations of social cues between romantic partners with respect to a third party are, I think, a matter of trope at this point. Whether or not they're genuinely disagreeing is a different matter, but given that context, ambiguity is the mark of a good execution of a social cue.

Yeah, when I was reading this article I kept thinking that social cues are generally not as ambiguous as this article is making it seem.

Off the top of my head, I can't remember a time when me and another person interpreted multiple social cues from a variety of people in completely the opposite directions. Plenty of times when we focused on different traits, but not where one person interpreted someone as warm and open and someone else as cold and unwelcoming.

By ambiguous social cues, I am referring to neutral expressions and other expressions that can be interpreted in different ways. The facial expression of concentrating can look like one of disapproval. Here's a link to a research article to the type of social cues I am referring to: and

Regardless of attachment style, oxytocin increases in-group favouritism, proclivity to group conflict, envy and schadenfreude. It increases cooperation, trust and so on inside one's group but it often decreases cooperation with out-groups.

I may not be recalling correctly, but although there is some small studies on that, I do not think there is a lot of evidence that oxytocin always leads anxiety, etc. in people with insecure attachment style. I would suspect that it might be the case it initially increases insecurity because it makes those persons attend to their relationship issues. However, in the long-run it might lead them to solve those issues. I say this because there are many studies showing insecure attachment style is associated with lower oxytocin receptor density. If your hypothesis were correct the density should be (on average) the same. There are also a lot of studies showing a correlation between oxytocin levels and relationship satisfaction, duration and so on. Additionally, intranasal oxytocin increases conflict solution in couples. Again, these would not be the case if your hypothesis were true. Overall there is a lot more evidence that oxytocin does increase secure attachment, although there is a small amount of evidence that, in the short-term, it increases measures associated with insecure attachment.

Perhaps you have already read it, (and it might be a bit outdated by now) but Oxytocin and social affiliation in humans (Feldman, 2012) offers a pretty comprehensive review of oxytocin's social effects. It will also point you to all the references to what I said above (it's pretty easy to find).

EDIT: Note: I, and the English dictionary, believe hormetic is the property of having opposing effects at different dosages. Which does not seem to fit what you intended.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

I think it is highly misleading to label hormones with simple emotions, such as dopamine-expectation, oxytocin - love and so on. Consider that taking a psychedelic drug can have wildly different effects based on set, setting and a million things. Should we label lsd as "horrific bad trip", "a satori moment", "seeing funny cartoons" or "just being wasted out of my mind and partying all night to goa trance" ? Why would natural hormones be different?

This article sounds like a good example of this.

The point of the article is to disassociate oxytocin from causing a specific emotion. The point is that oxytocin does not cause a specific emotion, rather how it contributes towards feeling specific emotions.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘oxytocin?’

"The thing they give to women who have trouble giving birth", but I am dating a doctor so I don't count.

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