Oxytocin is a hormone often thought of as a “love drug,” linked as it is with feel-good emotions such as trust, empathy and generosity. Increasingly, however, scientists find that oxytocin has a dark side — for example, it can spur envy and gloating, and also promote ethnocentrism, potentially fueling xenophobia, prejudice and violence. Now researchers find it might enhance lying that serves one’s group. The findings are detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Past research has shown that oxytocin helps foster social bonding in mammals. Social psychologists Shaul Shalvi at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and Carsten de Dreu at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands reasoned that in order to protect and promote the wellbeing of their group, people might bend the truth and behave unethically, a tendency potentially linked with oxytocin.
In an experiment, participants were each randomly assigned to a three-person group. They all had the same task — they saw a coin on a computer screen and were asked to predict the heads-or-tails outcome of a toss. When predictions were correct, the group won a small amount of money; when they were incorrect, the group lost nothing. All earnings were shared equally among group members.
A key part of the experiment was that volunteers did not have to type in their predictions beforehand. Instead, they typed in what their predictions were after seeing the outcome of the coin toss reveal whether their predictions were correct. This means that if they made an incorrect prediction, they could lie and report they predicted correctly.
When the participants could benefit their group by lying, 30 volunteers who inhaled oxytocin lied to a greater extent and more quickly than 30 volunteers who only received a placebo. For instance, when volunteers are honest, there is only a roughly 1 percent chance that people will correctly predict nine or all of 10 coin tosses, but when people received oxytocin, 53 percent of such volunteers reported such extreme coin-tossing “success.”
In another experiment, when lying benefitted only the individual, another group of 30 volunteers who inhaled oxytocin did not lie any more than 30 others who received a placebo.
“For our group members, or our loved ones, we will do almost everything, including lie and deceive,” Shalvi says.
These findings suggest that oxytocin might influence people to act in the best interest of their group, even if the actions include dishonesty.
“Oxytocin has been found to increase trust and cooperation in humans — as such, commercial applications has been proposed advocating oxytocin spray as a potential ‘love hormone,’” Shalvi says. “Our results cast doubt whether such applications should always be encouraged.”
Future work could test whether dishonesty that serves a group could help people in that group bond, Shalvi notes. Research could also see whether some people are more likely to lie for their group than others. “Are those individuals the leaders of the group, or perhaps people who aspire to become the leaders?” Shalvi asks. “Do people lie more when their group stands to profit because they feel that the responsibility for such act is shared and they are less likely to be punished? Alternatively, do they expect to feel less guilt from engaging in such group-serving lies? Or do they even anticipate feeling guilty for being honest?”