Oxytocin Promotes “Tend and Defend” Response, Researchers Report in Science

A soldier and a mother may share some interesting brain chemistry, according to a study in the 11 June issue of Science.

The hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin, perhaps best known for its roles in maternal behavior and social bonding, also appears to foster “parochial altruism,” according to Carsten De Dreu of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and colleagues.

This behavior combines altruism, whereby individuals act to benefit group members at a personal cost, with hostile behavior toward other groups (parochialism.) For example, soldiers who fight against an enemy, at risk to themselves, to protect their country, exhibit parochial altruism. The trait has figured prominently in evolutionary explanations of human social behavior, including explanations devised by Charles Darwin.

De Dreu and his colleagues examined whether parochial altruism has its biological basis in brain oxytocin. In three experiments, all on male volunteers, they compared the choices of individuals who received a dose of oxytocin via nasal spray with those who received a placebo. The volunteers were assigned to three-person groups and introduced to a game in which they made confidential decisions that had financial consequences for themselves, their fellow group members, and the competing groups.

The results indicated that oxytocin drives a “tend and defend” response, promoting in-group trust and cooperation, and defensive, but not offensive, aggression toward competing out-groups. The hormone appears to have this effect regardless of how naturally cooperative people are.

Links

Listen to Robert Frederick’s Science Podcast interview with Carsten K.W. De Dreu.

Read “The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans.” (AAAS membership or institutional access required.)