Mean Like Mommy
Oxytocin Makes You Forget Who Hurt You

Oxytocin Hype and Backlash

I read New York magazine, and they have a regular item called something like "We ride the shifting curve of expectations." They chart where cultural events like books and films fall on the cycle from hype to backlash against the hype.

In the past couple of weeks, I've watched oxytocin follow a similar path. Because I look at every news article and study regarding oxytocin, as well as all the blog posts discovered by a couple blog search tools, I can see what studies spark news coverage, and what kinds of memes spread.

Oxytocin hype has been rampant for the past three weeks. As far as I can tell, it got started with study led by Thomas Baumgartner at the University of Zurich showing that inhaling oxytocin increased people's willingness to trust other players in an economic game, even after they'd been shafted once. This is the team at the University of Zurich that did the very first human oxytocin studies showing that oxytocin increased trust. (Read my blog post about the previous research here.)

In this study, "We find that subjects in the oxytocin group show no change in their trusting behavior after they learned that their trust had been breached several times while subjects receiving placebo decrease their trust."

Some genius copywriter translated this to, "Oxytocin Makes Us Trust after Betrayal," leading to a spate of stories about how "Spray Said to Turn People into Pushovers." And it also led to my appearance on the Fox Morning With Mike and Juliet show.

Not to be outdone, Markus Heinrichs, who leads the Zurich team, talked to reporters (but did not, I believe, actually publish anything new) about their work using oxytocin to treat social anxiety disorder, which has been under way for several years. That sparked another news rush.

They mostly followed the lines of this one, Scientists Find Childbirth Wonder Drug That Can Cure Shyness, kindly sent to me by Blaine. Is that a sexy headline or what? The articles finally recognized the work of Paul Zak, who has been giving oxytocin to humans for several years, without a lot of notice. I didn't blog all these articles, partly because they were so ubiquitous and partly because I was finishing the manuscript of my book, ta daaa!

Already, though, oxytocin hype has faded into the final cycle, backlash. In part this is simply because news reporters have to come up with new stories every day. Once you've written a story hyping the prospects of oxytocin -- or worse, when your competitors have and you haven't -- where do you go from there but to write another one decrying the first. Ideally, at least in the olden days when I started my career as a journalist, you were supposed to find naysayers to quote in every story. But that was then.

The Neurocritic links to an ABC News story now insisting, "Researchers Balk at Media Reports Hyping 'Love Drug' Hormone's Effects."

And Paul Zanucci of American Sentinel calls it, "The Oxytocin Nightmare to Come -- Drugging America." I agree with his premise, and have been saying for a while that oxytocin will be the next Prozac. That is, while oxytocin-based or oxytocin-like drugs will be developed for social anxiety disorder and ASD, it will eventually be prescribed for much milder psychological situations. Zanucci writes,

Every time someone blows their nose, there’s a new prescription written for nasal sprays and antihistamines even though products like Zyrtec can now be bought OTC in generic form.  Every time someone is stressed out by work, another prescription is written for anti-anxiety medication.  People are happy as clams to pay $30 to $50 for the latest in pharmaceutical living, not considering that their insurance is paying another $300 behind the scenes and that their cost for insurance is going to go up again next year.

Nevertheless, I think calling this a nightmare is way too anti-hyperbolic. I'd much rather we revise labor, birth and parenting practices to allow individuals to form a healthy oxytocin response naturally. But our society is probably too sick and mechanistic for that. In which case, a nation of loved-out citizens who inhale oxytocin several times a day would be preferable to our extant war-mongering, paranoid, crabby society.

At any rate, I think we can shortly expect oxytocin to fall off the news cycle for at least a few months.