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June 2007
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August 2007

Oxytocin and Generosity

Benoit Hardy-Vallee gives a deep and detailed analysis of research exploring how oxytocin influences economic decisions.

His post on Natural Rationality focuses on a paper presented by Paul Zak and others at a recent Economic Science Association meeting.  The bottom line, he says, is "generosity 'runs' on empathy."

Benoit-Vallee provides details from the paper showing the statistical differences in behavior; if you like to dig into such research, his post is a good place to start. In general, his new blog is devoted to that wiggly interaction of hypothalamus and prefrontal cortex, as expressed in economic decisions.

You can click through from his blog to the paper itself.

See also "Toward a Non-Autistic Economy."

Natural Birth Is Good for Elephants, Too

Giving Birth with Confidence has a nice post about the labor and birth of a baby elephant at the Dublin Zoo. This was the first elephant born in Ireland. The mother, Bernhardine, was allowed to complete the natural process in her own time, without interventions of any kind.

"The other female elephant and her own young elephant stayed with Bernhardine in labor and have been caring for her and her baby every since."

See also, "First Elephant Born in Ireland," and  "Medical Meddling in Birth."

On Flickr, Ken Heffernan has posted a wonderful photo of the baby.

Toward a Non-Autistic Economy

Why is it so hard to get people to agree to stop killing each other? Maybe because our diplomats don't understand human nature.

New Zealander John Borrie heads the United Nations project "Disarmament as Humanitarian Action: Making Multilateral Negotiations Work." He says governments and central bankers make policy based on flawed assumptions about people and their economic decisions.

Borrie writes,

These days ..., economists more commonly couch their models and theories in terms of ‘bounded rationality’, recognizing that the availability of information and human capacity for rational decision-making are far less than perfect. The economist John Maynard Keynes himself observed in the 1930s that, "a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than on mathematical expectation."

You can see this in the way people play economic games, Borrie points out. In the Ultimatum Game, one person is given money that she can keep or choose to split with a partner. But, if the partner rejects the split, both get nothing. Most people split the money pretty evenly, assuming that the recipient would reject an unfair deal. And  most recipients will walk away with nothing, rather than letting the greedy donor profit-- even though $1 is better than nothing.

He goes on to discuss the "neuroeconomics" studies in which inhaling oxytocin made people behave more trustingly and cooperatively in economic exchanges. Borrie writes,

… the compound’s clear effect on human perceptions and behaviour during an investment game (as a result of some participants squirting oxytocin up their noses) was a bombshell. Who knew that a tendency to increase trust and cooperate could be triggered by biochemicals? Least of all diplomats themselves, beyond “the smell of the room” many of them sense in a negotiation.

Borrie's article ties in with one in the June 11, 2007, issue of The Nation. In "Hip Heterodoxy," Christopher Hayes, a senior editor at In These Times, writes about the battle for credibility of what's known as behavioral economics within traditional economics.

The dominant theory, the neoclassical approach, remains wedded to the idea that people and markets behave logically in ways that will maximize their own economic interests, leading to a stable marketplace with appropriate prices for goods and services. These theorists, Hayes writes, "fully embrace the logical extremes of a world of self-interested rational actors."

On the other hand, behavioral economists -- those espousing the heterodoxical theory that human nature isn't rational -- find real people to be "systematically biased in their calculations of risk, disposed to punish antisocial behavior, even at a cost to themselves."

According to Hayes, the idea that people doing business might be motivated by anything other than economic gain is downright heretical among academics.

Borrie seems to think that negotiators should use what neuroscience has uncovered primarily to make sure that they aren't being swayed off the rational course. He writes,

By uncovering the empirical underpinnings for some aspects of human behaviour that aren’t learned, or which aren’t obvious to our constrained perceptions, they can help multilateral negotiators recognize and compare their intuitions with their human capacity for rationality.

But he also says,

Successful diplomacy is a knife-edge balance between intuitive savvy and rational calculation. It’s easy to confuse one with the other. If multilateral negotiations are to become more effective – and they need to if the appalling record of disarmament and arms control diplomacy over the last decade is any guide – they’ll need to be open to new approaches from unorthodox quarters.

Such as being more, well, human? Being open to empathy and compassion? Recognizing the hopes, desires and needs of our fellows? Maybe so. Borrie goes on,

Central to the project’s approach is that multilateral disarmament be seen from the referent point of the security of the individual human being, as well as the traditional focus on the nation state. “Humanitarian” needs to encompass what it means in specific perceptual terms to be human in outlook and behaviour if we are to successfully alleviate the complex and almost intractable security problems of so many communities around the world torn apart by conflict.

We are hardwired to connect, in the words of the <a href="">Commission on Children at Risk</a>: Our evolutionary heritage as cooperative breeders and highly social individuals makes it feel good to cooperate. This feel-good goes deeper than emotion. Oxytocin is tied into not only social interaction in our brains but also into the health of our bodies. We need to connect.

Even in business.

In his Nation piece, Hayes also talks about a 2000 protest among students at the Ecole Normale Superieure against what they called the "autistic economics" being taught in universities.

In their manifesto, the students demanded a pluralistic approach that would allow economists to actually become useful to society and individuals by explaining the real world we live in, instead of promulgating abstract theories. They said, "We do not accept this dogmatism. We want a pluralism of approaches, adapted to the complexity of the objects and to the uncertainty surrounding most of the big questions in economics (unemployment, inequalities, the place of financial markets, the advantages and disadvantages of free-trade, globalization, economic development, etc.)"

You can read the history of the Post-Autistic Economics Movement <a href="">here</a>.

It's telling that many scientists think that autism involves a breakdown in the oxytocin system. People with autistic spectrum disorder have difficulty feeling empathy for others. No one has watched them play the Ultimatum Game, but if they did, it's likely that intellectually average people with ASD would behave with superbly rational self-interest.

Suddenly, oxytocin seems central to economic endeavor. So, let's posit an oxytocin-centric economics.

Would this be a world where the goal of business would be to profit by solving the problems of society? By fulfilling people's needs? Would universal health care suddenly seem important? Would a different kind of person be drawn to the business world? Would this be a revolution?

Oxytocin Could Be Productized in Five Years

Markus Heinrichs, the University of Zurich researcher who has led or been involved in many of the "trust studies" in which oxytocin proved in the laboratory to increase trust in economic and social situations, evidently dropped a little bombshell at a neuroscience conference this week.

According to ShortNews, Heinrichs told the World Congress of Neuroscience about a test in which 70 adults inhaled oxytocin. They felt more self-confident and less shy.

Heinrichs supposedly told the scientific audience that he'll do a larger trial and, if all goes well, such a product could reach the market in the next five years.

Paul Zak, the Claremont Graduate School economist who recently received a grant to study trust in economic exchanges, worked with Heinrichs' team on some of the studies underlying this promised drug.

Of course, such a drug is available today. OxyCalm is a low-dose oxytocin nasal spray freely available over the internet.

See also "Oxytocin Patent Just in Time" and "Oxytocin, Trust and Greed."

Do We End Up Marrying Our Parents?

When it comes to love, it seems most everything we know, we did learn before kindergarten. We learn how to relate to people -- and, especially, how to love -- from our mothers, or from whoever takes care of us the most.

But not everyone is lucky enough to get the right kind of mothering, the kind that reassures the undeveloped baby mind that love and protection will always be there.

Some mothers don't feel confident they can take care of a baby; some didn't learn how to love from their own mothers. Sometimes, a woman feels angry and trapped by a pregnancy she never wanted. Although oxytocin associated with labor and birth provides an opportunity for forming a deep bond between mother and baby, circumstances or the mother's own needs or fears may prevent a secure bond from forming.

In the 1940s, psychologist John Bowlby realized that not every child formed a deep and secure attachment with his mother.

Bowlby's idea was that we learn "attachment styles," the way we behave in close relationships, from our mothers -- or whoever is the primary caregiver during our infancy. He and collaborator Mary Ainsworth identified three attachment styles: secure, anxious and avoidant. Anxious kids are never sure what response they'll get from their mothers, so they expend a lot of energy trying to get affection and attention. Avoidant kids have decided they're not going to get much love, so they do their best to do without.

These coping strategies are encoded at the neurochemical level: The stress response and the oxytocin response seem to be set by the relative amounts of anxiety and love a baby experiences.

According to Bowlby's and Ainsworth's theory of attachment, we tend to use the same style of relating to others that we learned with our mothers. But the brain is plastic; it continues to grow in response to experience. How much do we automatically apply the way we relate to Mommy and Daddy to the friends and lovers we meet?

Claudia Chloe Brumbaugh is a psychologist studying attachment, working in the lab of R. Chris Fraley at the University of Illinois. Fraley was a student of Phil Shaver's, one of the modern attachment theorists who took John Bowlby's ideas and extended them to adult relationships.

Fraley and others have expanded the list of attachment styles to provide more nuance.

Fraley has been tracking attachment styles for several years, via studies and Internet surveys. He and Brumbaugh hope to understand just how set these styles are, whether they change as we look outward from our mother's breast.

In a recent study, Brumbaugh and Fraley asked people to describe one of their parents and their current love partner. They also determined how secure each person felt in these relationships, as well as their general attachment styles. Next, they created fictional profiles of people, some of them designed to be similar to each person's parent and lover, putting them into the form of a personals ad.

In a separate session two weeks later, participants were asked to read the ads of people who were similar to their parent and to their lover, as well as ads that were like neither; these were the controls.

In a similar early study that only looked at love relationships, Brumbaugh and Fraley found that when people read the ads of individuals who were like their romantic partners, they tended to apply the same emotional strategies to the new person.

It looks like Mom and Dad -- and especially Mom -- provide the basis a global working model that we start with when trying to connect with someone new. But as we meet and get to know more and more people, we edit the model until it's more of an average of all our experiences of others. We may also develop some more specific models: parental figure, friend, lover. Ideally, we continue to edit all these models based on our ongoing experiences in the world.

Brumbaugh and Fraley have a paper in press that describes their latest study. I spoke with her in April 2007.

HUG: Tell me about the concept of multiple working models for relationships. Some are general and others represent a specific type?

Brumbaugh: Most attachment researchers measure a more global attachment style: How we approach close relationships in general. But people can have different attachment orientations to different people in their lives. You don't necessarily have the same feelings toward your mother as toward a boyfriend. I'm interested in the specific models of relationships.

HUG: In your paper, you wrote that "attachment orientations toward parental and romantic relationships have been shown to be only modestly correlated to one another." Does that mean that when we start to move out of the family circle, we start from scratch to build new models?

Brumbaugh: They're called working models for a good reason. The working aspect means they're open to change and revision. It's hard to conclusively say what's going on, but it seems we do use our parental models as the basis for new relationships. However, they are up for revision with life experiences and new relationships. In childhood, your attachment orientation and relationship-specific working models are the same thing; for most people, it's their parents. Over time, we build relationship-specific models for other people in our lives. The modeling becomes more complex and multidimensional.

HUG: Can we completely change our attachment style?

Brumbaugh: I'm not aware of any research, but I've heard people tend to move in a more secure direction over time; they're more likely to become secure than insecure over time.

HUG: I know it’s an unconscious process, but how do we “decide” which model to use?

Brumbaugh: It can be a variety of things, it seems. In my research, I ask people to provide an open-ended description of their attachment figures. They write down 14 sentences about someone, whether parents or a romantic partner. They can describe anything, from day-to-day behavior, such as enjoying cooking, to fundamental characteristics, like being supportive. I use these descriptions to create profiles. It seems that most any aspect of a person can trigger the use of these working models.

HUG: One of your hypotheses was that when similarity exists between a new person we meet and someone who's the basis for an existing relationship model, that model is activated, so that we use the same style in the new relationship. Did that happen in your study?

Brumbaugh: Even when there was no similarity between the new relational target and an existing model, people applied their partner models to both the partner target (that is, the person who resembled the partner) and the parental target. They also did use their parental model, but not in a selective way. There was more selectivity in the way people applied their partner models.

HUG: What about in the control condition, the person who didn't resemble either the parent or the partner?

Brumbaugh: People applied the parental model significantly more. It may have something to do with how parental models are foundations of working models; they might have a minimal but persistent way of being applied. When no resemblance exists between the past and present situation, the parental model may be more of a default.

HUG: You found that the subjects who were avoidant toward their parents didn't apply that strategy to the targets, not even those who resembled their parents.

Brumbaugh: Correct. It seems like people start relying more and more on their partners. But you have to take into consideration the demographic I'm working with. These people are falling in love; they may be having their first romantic experience at age 18 or 19. People who were not in romantic relationships were excluded from my study. I have the feeling it's a crucial time period for them. They've just left home for college, and maybe there's some distancing from their parents going on. At the same time, these romantic relationships are becoming really important.

HUG: But anxiety toward the parent seemed to pervade new relationships.

Brumbaugh: The thing I found most interesting was that people were more positive to new people who resembled their partners. At the same time, they were more anxious toward the partner target. They were seemingly more attracted to and interested in the person who resembled the partner but also afraid of them at the same time. Obviously, attraction makes sense. Possibly, the anxiety is because partners can break up with you and parents can't. The more important the relationship was, the more they transferred anxiety to the partner target. They seemed to feel, "You're the one, please don't leave me."

Testosterone Promotes Fair Play

Oxytocin seems to make us more trusting; testosterone evidently makes us less lackadaisical in our interactions.

In various experiments using inhaled oxytocin, Marcus Heinrichs and Paul Zak have shown that it makes people behave more trustingly and/or more cooperatively in economic exchanges.

A new study found that men with higher testosterone were less likely to accept low-ball deals. New Scientist reports on research by Terry Burnham of Harvard. Burnham had volunteers play the Ultimatum Game, where one person can share some or all of a cash prize with another person. The other person can accept or refuse the split; if he refuses, both get nothing. Burnham found that men with higher testosterone levels were less likely to accept a measly portion.

This is one of those cases that seem odd to economists who believe that economic decisions are rational. After all, some cash, even five bucks, is better than nothing, right? Yet, participants in this game typically do reject ungenerous offers.

Scientists have proposed various theories for the evolution of this behavior: Is there some "altruism gene" that drives us to try to enforce cooperative behavior in others? Are the refuseniks trying to punish the greedy person?

According to the article,

He speculates that testosterone produces a greater aversion to unfair deals because the hormone is linked to dominance-seeking behaviours.

In other words, Burnham believes that high-testosterone men reject measly offers because accepting such deals would put them in a subordinate social position. He adds that our ancestors who accepted a subordinate position probably faced an evolutionary disadvantage.

These findings are similar to research by Zak. Instead of looking at men with naturally high levels of testosterone, he administered it to some subjects before the Ultimatum Game. In the study, men received a dose of testosterone the night before the game.

The men on testosterone tended to be more generous when they were doling out the money, and more likely to punish the other if the split wasn't fair.

He told me, "We essentially create alpha males in the study. This is consistent with the animal literature. In primates, the hierarchy is maintained by the alpha male by sharing access to food and females."

Zak thinks this research uses a different pathway from the cooperative social behavior triggered by and/or in response to oxytocin.

For more on Zak's work, see my recent interview with him, "Oxytocin, Trust and Greed."

Did Hitler Have RAD?

How do human monsters get that way? Most of us can't imagine how anyone could create the evil and pain that Adolph Hitler did.

We like to think of Hitler and others like him as aberrations of nature, pure evil somehow come into human form. But monsters like Hitler are created by other humans; most often, they're made by their parents.

Alice Miller

In an article about Hitler reprinted on, she writes,

In order not to die, all mistreated children must totally repress the mistreatment, deprivation, and bewilderment they have undergone because otherwise the child's organism wouldn't be able to cope with the magnitude of the pain suffered. Only as adults do they have other possibilities for dealing with their feelings. If they don't make use of these possibilities, then what was once the life-saving function of repression can be transformed Into a dangerous destructive, and self-destructive force.

Hitler was beaten severely and regularly by his father; to protect himself, he learned to repress all feeling. But, Miller writes, his rage and pain remained. Her book, "For Your Own Good," explains how his childhood experiences caused him to become the man he was, as well as how German society created a generation with many people who were ready to follow him. The book is a polemic against the cruelty we inflict on children in the name of discipline and socialization.

Reactive attachment disorder, or RAD, is a diagnosis given to people -- most often children -- who are unable to bond with others. They show little or no empathy, they are often violent and destructive, and they can be very cruel. It's very likely that today, Adolf Hitler would be diagnosed with RAD.

Miller is very clear that Hitler is still responsible for his actions, as we all are. And she is NOT justifying what he did in any way. She says,

What point is there for us today in learning about Hitler and his history? For me, the main point is this: our knowledge will serve as a warning against our blindness and encourage us to give it up once and for all and to struggle against collective repression. This is what I do consistently in all my books in order to help people understand the psychodynamics of the mistreatment of children and its immeasurable danger for society, as demonstrated by Hitler's case. My explanations are by no means intended to suggest pity for a man as merciless as Hitler.

For other psychologically oriented analyses of Hitler, see posts in this forum:

My New Column

I'm experimenting with writing a weekly column that will cover how neurochemistry affects daily life.

My first piece in the series, titled "Better Living Through Chemistry," answers the question, "Does oxytocin get used up the more you have sex?"

Please check it out here.