Hormones, Ethnocentrism, and Casuistry

18 Feb

Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that has been linked in a variety of studies to various activities such as fostering trust in relationships, social bonding, sexual pleasure, increased emotional comprehension, and mother-infant bonding.  Its effects in these areas are fairly well-recognized; perform a Google search for “oxytocin” and immediately below the obligatory Wikipedia page you’ll find it described as the “hormone of love”, along with advertisements touting the various sprays and homeopathic remedies that promise to improve your relationships (read: sex lives).  All of this attention, however, brings to mind a question: how much emphasis should we place on the role that hormones play in our decision-making processes?

Of primary discussion in this post will be a new study described by the New York Times linking exposure to oxytocin and increased intergroup bias.  The study was authored by Carsten DeDrew, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, who was intrigued by the literature linking oxytocin to increased cooperation.  He posited that evolutionary pressures would require that some sort of limit be placed on this relationship-building behavior, because unbounded trust would not increase chances of survival.

The in-group in this experiment was Dutch college students, and the out-groups were Germans and Muslims, based on data showing that many Dutch citizens had negative opinions of those two groups.  Ed Yong on Discover Magazine’s blog describes how, in several double-blind experiments, students were given nasal spray with either oxytocin or a placebo, and then took an implicit association test asking them to categorize words into different groups.  Biases in such studies are found in reaction times, and the data showed that those who had taken doses of oxytocin were quicker to associate positive words with Dutch names like Peter than with a common Muslim name such as Youssef.  The second study, similar to the modified trolley dilemma described by Knowles, asked students to make moral choices: one involved a train where a flipped switch would save five people on the tracks but kill one, while another involved deciding whether to help someone onto a lifeboat if it meant drowning the other five passengers.  In each case, the single person was given a Dutch, German, or Arab name, while the ethnic identity of the larger group to be saved was not implied in any way.  The results showed that the participants who had been exposed to oxytocin were less willing to sacrifice the individuals with Dutch names.  Thus, oxytocin can be seen to strengthen in-group bonds by giving members of your own community preferential treatment, while mistrusting perceived outsiders.  Ed Yong describes the implications of this work in this way:

The stereotypical view of oxytocin is that it increases positive feelings rather than negative ones. But it doesn’t do so equally. Rather than being an all-purpose chemical of social affection, you could view oxytocin as a drug that strengthens our tendency to discriminate between people within and outside our social cliques. “Different” can come under many guises – in de Dreu’s experiments, Germans and Arab people were both treated as outsiders,  despite having very different characteristics and stereotypes.

The New York Times quotes Dr. DeDrew’s analysis of why this result comports with expectations of evolutionarily advantageous behavior:

In the ancestral environment it was very important for people to detect in others whether they had a long-term commitment to the group… Ethnocentrism is a very basic part of humans, and it’s not something we can change by education.

A larger question, however, posed by Swedish neuroscientist Daniel Ocampo Daza, is the extent to which

Mr. Daza's hypothetical explanation of the relationship between oxytocin and a particular defined behavior.

we can depend on studies like these to show that hormones actually determine a particular behavior absent additional context.  Is ethnocentric behavior completely fixed by our biology?  Daza wants to advocate for a more nuanced view of implications of this study:

It’s possible to say that oxytocin is implicated in ethnocentrism, but it’s difficult to say exactly under which conditions or in which situations outside of these experiments, or if it sometimes is overridden or reinforced by other neural substrates. The brain is complex enough to make it safe to assume that oxytocin probably isn’t acting alone.

It is interesting to think about the possibility that our hormones somehow foster ethnocentrism in combination with Knowles’ description of the debate between intuitionism and casuistic reasoning.  How and why does a particular group become defined?  What role does biology and evolutionary wiring play in determining what we choose to believe, or why we develop particular emotions, beliefs, and structures of reasoning?  Knowles clearly documented certain biases in particular groups, using particular beliefs held by conservatives and liberals to document that “our judgments are biased by our preferences.”  How did these concerns about fairness come to be preferred by some members of the community, while others (conservatives) decided to prioritize in-group loyalty?  The theory of flexibility of principle and preference, and the idea that “moral intuitions reflect adaptive insights,” can be informed by studies about biological mechanisms like oxytocin.  Maybe one day, when we recognize all of the variables, we’ll actually understand what’s happening inside our heads.

8 Responses to “Hormones, Ethnocentrism, and Casuistry”

  1. Rachel Funk February 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm #


    There’s one part that says, “The results showed that the participants who had been exposed to oxytocin were less willing to sacrifice the individual when he did not have a Dutch name.” Did you mean that they were less willing when he *did* have a Dutch name? I assumed so, but I just wanted to check in case I misunderstood. Thanks!

    x R

    P.S. Feel free to delete/disapprove this comment — I was just too lazy to look up your e-mail address. :-)

    P.P.S. Super-interesting post!!

  2. DAS February 14, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    Given our thoughts and mental states are all neurobiological, wouldn’t it make sense that some compounds, hormones, or chemicals stimulate certain kinds of thoughts? Isn’t the key, then, identifying the “triggers” for such thoughts and trying to reduce or control them in one way or another?

    • Rachel Funk February 14, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

      Ooh, where do thoughts come from? Love it. But intriguing metaphysical questions aside, I think that the general idea is that the factors going into any given thought are too complex for it to always be a single ‘trigger’, or even a group of triggers, that will inevitably lead to a particular kind of thought. What we are is a mixed product of our genetics & environment, and the interactions between the two — and the intra-actions, if you will, within them — are too dependent/conditional on too many other factors for us to reliably predict the results on our thoughts.

      Obviously, we’ve been able to make rough estimates with things like antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, and with the outcomes of studies like the one detailed here, but it seems to me that the cognitive processing that goes into thoughts is at such a high level that environmental factors present outside of a controlled laboratory setting might have additional, unexpected impacts.

  3. Jon Hanson February 14, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    This is a terrific summary of the research and a great post. I came to it with my own working hypothesis in mind regarding how people react when they encounter inequality. Mark Yeboah and I have written about “inequality dissonance,” which we claim leads people to either want to equalize or to rationalize the salient inequalities they encounter. Perhaps the effect of Oxytocin is simply to amplify those impulses while leaving their valence unchanged. Of course, in-group/out-group distinctions are a common categorical boundary used for rationalizing. As to why such mechanisms of rationalization get formed, perhaps that can be a topic of discussion in class today.

  4. Joan Cassie Mathias February 14, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    What a great Valentine’s Day article for Law & Mind Sciences! We learned about oxytocin in a Positive Psychology class I took as an undergraduate. Our textbook referred to it as “the cuddle hormone.” As you mentioned, oxytocin is released in the brain in response to social contact, especially skin to skin touching. You mentioned that it has been linked to mother-infant bonding. Oxytocin increase during a woman’s pregnancy, surges during the childbirth process, and it’s presence facilitates the production of milk and general maternal behavior. What surprised me even more though, was that for the father-to-be, oxytocin rose during the mother’s pregnancy and to the degree that the father spent time with the infant, oxytocin (and, perhaps causally or at least in a positive correlation), his interest in his child increased! There does not need to be an infant present for oxytocin to have an effect on adults — it has been linked to the creation of a loving bond between individuals, and even monogamy. It’s presence is associated with dopamine (the neurotransmitter broadly responsible for reinforcement, pleasure, and addiction), which lead our textbook to hypothesize that perhaps being “addicted to love” has biological underpinnings. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

  5. jtroxel February 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    Great post. Well written and researched. I was especially interested in Dr. DeDrew’s comment on ethnocentrism as something we can’t change by education. That made me wonder what factors contributes to our own ethnocentrism. The ethnic lines are somewhat more varied and blurred in the U.S. than the Netherlands. So would names alone trigger the same reaction in U.S. students?

  6. Michael B October 6, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    Although this is an interesting study, I would disagree with the conclusion reached by the author of this post mainly because of his implying that hormones play the role of decision making in the human body (and especially with regard to ethnocentrism). I would advocate for the position that oxytocin is just one of many hormones that are active within the body during our decision making process and that its function is more centered on allowing us to behave rather than deciding how we behave. For support, I would use the neuroscientist Daniel Daza position that we are not exactly sure of oxytocin’s effect on the brain: “It’s possible to say that oxytocin is implicated in ethnocentrism, but it’s difficult to say exactly under which conditions or in which situations outside of these experiments, or if it sometimes is overridden or reinforced by other neural substrates. The brain is complex enough to make it safe to assume that oxytocin probably isn’t acting alone.” There are simply far too many things going on in the brain for us to be able to say “this and this alone decides our behavior”-it is simply illogical to make such a statement.


  1. Wednesday Round Up #143 | Neuroanthropology - February 23, 2011

    [...] and Mind, Hormones, Ethnocentrism, And Casuistry *Thoughtful post on studies linking oxytocin to ethnocentrism and the various critiques of these [...]

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