Could Cooperation and Corruption Originate with the Same Hormone?

We humans contend with quite a few wicked flip sides in our personal and interpersonal lives. Gratitude can transform into resentment. Concern can morph into apathy. Love can quickly become hate. New research digs deeper into a similar neurobiological duality that can, and frequently does, run rampant in groups: the Jekyll and Hyde of cooperation and corruption.

Researchers hypothesized that oxytocin—the same hormone that previous studies have linked to collaboration and altruism—can predispose us to acting dishonestly if we think doing so will benefit our group of choice. A “group” in this case means anyone to whom we feel some sense of obligation, be it family, coworkers, peers, political cronies or our Friday night craft beer buddies.

In our day-to-day lives, oxytocin is thought to play a big role in how closely bonded we feel to our group. It isn’t just the “cuddle hormone” (often discussed in studies about love and affection) but also the group-cohesion hormone.

To test the hypothesis, the research team gave one group of healthy male participants a dose of oxytocin via nasal spray and another group a placebo nasal spray (neither the participants nor the researchers knew which participants received which spray). The participants were then asked to toss a coin multiple times and make predictions on whether they’d flip heads or tails, and then self-report on the results. How well they did, they were told, would win or lose money for their fellow group members. How they reported—honestly or dishonestly—was kept anonymous, assuring the participants that how they chose to respond wouldn’t reflect back on them personally.

We might guess that participants would lie more often about the results only if they, individually, could benefit – but instead participants given oxytocin lied significantly more about the coin flip than the placebo group only if doing so gained money for their fellow group members. And they lied for the group even if they thought that the favor wouldn't be reciprocated.

To find out how participants would react if they thought they’d benefit individually, the researchers put another group through the same testing conditions but told participants that the results of their predictions would only win or lose them money, with no group benefit or loss attached. The results showed that oxytocin did not influence participants to lie any more than those in the placebo group.

In other words, oxytocin promoted lying for group but not individual benefit.

The study has a few limitations, the most obvious of which is that it used only male participants. Whether or not oxytocin would influence females toward group dishonesty is impossible to tell from these results.

But, at least for men, it seems that higher levels of oxytocin potently affect decisions to lie for the group’s benefit. This may help explain the “you go, I go, we all go” nature of fraternal groups. And the results highlight the role of group bonding in forging hard-to-crack corruption. Last year's hit movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, a true tale about a group of corrupt stock brokers making an obscene amount of ill-gotten money, and lying to ensure that no one got caught (at least for a while), comes to mind as a vivid illustration.

The study was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative, at his website The Daily Brain, and on YouTube at Your Brain Channel. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.

Posted on May 18, 2014 .