Oxytocin is the new hormone possibly responsible for increase of trust, “the hormone of love”, and improvement of social cognition. This optimism is sometimes turned around in the way that some researchers believe that oxytocine could also ameliorate social deficits such as present in social phobia and autism. I don’t share this optimism, in biology and human neuroscience you can’t simply turn the proof around. We’ve seen a lot of trouble from this simple method. In depression not only the neurotransmitters are dysregulated, nor the lack of dopamine doesn’t explain Schizophrenia and so on and so on.
Then why write about oxytocin? Well, I’m interested in empathy. Empathy is an interesting phenomenon of which we only understand very little. Moreover, a recent study had the important premises that oxytocin may selectively facilitate social cognition given certain constraints. They had a very thought provoking hypothesis. To me someone should need some social cognition in order to be able to improve empathy with oxytocine but the researchers had an other hypothesis. They hypothesized that oxytocin would be of more value, improve empathy more in those with less social proficiency. They used a double blind placebo controlled crossover trial: participants received either intranasal oxytocin or a placebo and performed an empathic accuracy task that naturalistically measures social-cognitive abilities. Baseline social competencies were measured with the Autism Spectrum Quotient.
Oxytocin only improved empathetic accuracy in less socially proficient individuals not in more socially proficient individuals. Oxytocin does not acts as a universal prosocial enhancer that can render all people social-cognitive experts. This is against my hypothesis but nevertheless more in relation to reality that oxytocin is not the new social drug we thought it to be.
Bartz, J., Zaki, J., Bolger, N., Hollander, E., Ludwig, N., Kolevzon, A., & Ochsner, K. (2010). Oxytocin Selectively Improves Empathic Accuracy Psychological Science, 21 (10), 1426-1428 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610383439