Love Hormone Also Causes Racism

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Ed Yong reports on a new study that changes how we view oxytocin, which "has been linked to virtually every positive aspect of human behaviour, including trust, social skills, empathy, generosity, cooperation, and even orgasm." The study shows one other, not so beneficial, side:

[Carsten de Dreu at the University of Amsterdam] presented volunteers with a famous series of moral dilemmas. For example, a runaway rail trolley is hurtling towards five people who are about to be killed unless you flip a switch that diverts the trolley into the path of just one person. All of the dilemmas took the same form – you weigh the lives of one person against a group. And in all the cases, the lone person had either a Dutch, German or Arab name, while the group were nameless.

After a sniff of placebo, the Dutch volunteers were just as likely to sacrifice the single person, no matter what name they had. But after sniffing oxytocin, they were far less likely to sacrifice the Dutch loners than the German and Arab ones.

Jonah Lehrer notes that these findings apply to most attempted "enhancements" to the brain:

This suggests that the feelings of trust and warmth triggered by oxytocin come with a hidden cost, in that we become less likely to trust “outsiders.” Although the chemical sharpens our positive feelings towards those we already know and understand, it also exaggerates the perceived differences between our in-group and everyone else. There is no love for all.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. One of the endlessly repeated lessons of the human brain is that it’s a finely equilibrated machine, full of carefully engineered compromises and tradeoffs. As a result, many of our attempted “enhancements” come with a steep cost, triggering a raft of unintended side-effects.

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