Oxytocin does not make a shy person less fearful of angry faces
Oxytocin makes people feel less fearful of angry faces, but only if they are not socially anxious. Psychologists at the universities of Leiden and Nijmegen report their findings in an article in Psychological Science.
Previous studies have shown that people who have been administered oxytocin tend to recognize another person’s emotions better. But what do they then do with this information? Psychologist Ellen de Bruijn of Leiden University believes that this question has not yet been properly examined. She researches why people with a psychological disorder often seem to experience serious problems in social situations. She also wants to find out whether the oxytocin hormone is able to elicit different reactions. Together with her PhD student Sina Radke, De Bruijn examined how test candidates who had been given a small dose of oxytocin reacted to angry and happy faces.
In their study the team had healthy male volunteers carry out a so-called approach-avoidance task. For the first test the volunteers were given oxytocin via a nasal spray, for the second test a placebo. The team then observed how the test candidates reacted in each case to happy and angry faces shown on a computer screen. They were free to pull the faces towards them by means of a joystick (enlarging the faces), or to push them away (reducing them in size).
The hormone showed a clear effect. De Bruijn: ‘Oxytocin allows people to feel less fearful of angry faces; rather, they are drawn towards them. This only happens with people who have low social anxiety, and who, as a consequence, do not suffer from extreme shyness or show avoidance behaviour in social situations.’ People with social anxieties, however, show the same reaction with oxytocin as with a placebo: they look for happy faces and avoid angry ones.
This result reflects the recent studies on the effect of oxytocin. De Bruijn: ‘For a long time oxytocin has been considered the panacea for making people more sociable, but recently an increasing number of studies have modified this image. The effect of oxytocin is highly dependent on the context. From an evolutionary point of view, it is not always beneficial to be sociable towards everyone, as you need to be able to differentiate between friends and enemies.’
The question remains of why people who have been given oxytocin tend to be drawn to angry faces. De Bruijn carried out similar research on psychopathic patients in a TBS clinic; they, too, tended to be drawn to angry faces, without any dose of oxytocin. De Bruijn: ‘It can either be the result of feeling less fear or it can indicate an increase in aggression.’ Her recent Vidi grant from the NWO has now given her the opportunity to carry out further research on the effects of oxytocin on patients suffering from social anxieties and psychopathic disorders. ‘We hope to be able to clarify the precise workings of oxytocin, and whether and under what circumstances it can help these patients.’
(4 July 2013 - LvP)
Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter. It is released naturally through positive interaction between people, such as eye contact and touch. An increased dose is beneficial to the relationship between parents and children and in social and sexual contacts. However, oxytocin can also cause people to behave more aggressively towards people from a rival group.
‘Acting on anger’, Psychological Science, Sina Radke, Karin Roelofs, Ellen de Bruijn
'Psychopaths lack the automatic avoidance of social threat', Psychiatry Research, Ellen de Bruijn e.a.
'Op zoek naar het knuffelhormoon', Television programme VRT (in Dutch)