Oxytocin, known as the love hormone, plays a key role in the development of trust and loving bonds. But a recent study suggests that those exposed to the hormone may also become more prone to lying, particularly in a setting where it may benefit those around them.
The hormone, which is involved in the reproductive process and released during childbirth, is often associated with some of the most positive human behaviors. It is thought to play a crucial role in bringing about orgasm, encouraging social recognition and strengthening bonds between mothers and their infants.
However, according to a study published by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and the University of Amsterdam in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the hormone could also lead to dishonesty.
Sixty volunteers were divided into two groups: the first inhaled oxytocin while the rest received a placebo. All of the subjects were told to play a game in which they predicted the results of a coin toss and reported their success to the test's organizers. In one test, the subjects were told they could win money for themselves and their entire test group, while in another, they were told they were playing just for themselves.
Researchers observed that in the former test, when the interest of the entire group was at stake, the subjects who received oxytocin were more likely to cheat. Under the influence of the hormone, the subjects lied to organizers more frequently about the success of their predictions in order to earn more money for the group. When only individual winnings were at stake, there was no significant difference in the frequency of lying between the subjects in the control group and those who took oxytocin.
The researchers say their findings point out once and for all that oxytocin is not "the moral molecule" it is often thought to be. "Oxytocin is causing a more general shift from self-interest to group-interest," said co-author Carsten de Dreu, as reported in The Scientist. "It's simplistic and wrong to call oxytocin a ‘moral' molecule."