The Mr. Hyde of Oxytocin

by theowl 2 min read10th May 201533 comments


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.