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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

School Winner: Is oxytocin the 'moral molecule'?

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    21 Jan

    Winning Entry Bournemouth School for Girls 7C Ana Valentina Florea Oxytocin is known to make the uterus contract before childbirth and trigger the release of breast milk, but it is also very important in social interactions. Some have gone as far as calling it 'the love hormone' or even 'the moral molecule'. But what exactly does it do? And does it promote ethical behaviour in all situations, as some claim it does?

    Paul Zak supports the view that oxytocin 'connects us to other people' and it is ultimately the ingredient for happiness. He, Michael Kosfeld and Markus Heinrichs conducted an experiment which is frequently used by economists to measure trust. In the experiment, person A can keep a sum of money (for example £10) or share it with person B. If shared, the investment is tripled (so £30) and B now can decide to send back part of the sum (for example, £15 so the sum is split equally) or to keep all the money. Person A therefore has to make a decision as whether or not to trust person B. They found that the more money the second person received, the more oxytocin was produced by their brain, and the more money they returned. So it's fair to assume that this molecule facilitates social interactions and can even prove essential to our survival, as in one animal study during which the hormone was blocked in ewes, they neglected their new-born lambs.

    However, the effect of oxytocin isn't as straightforward as Zak suggests and it often depends on the situation. Shaul Shalvia and Carsten De Dreub have tested the effects of oxytocin, using an experimental game which allowed participants to lie in order to benefit the group. What they've found? Compared with participants who received placebo, participants receiving oxytocin lied more (and more quickly) to benefit their groups. 'These findings highlight the role of bonding and cooperation in shaping dishonesty, providing insight into when and why collaboration turns into corruption.’ they concluded.

    Jennifer Bartz has found other responses that depend on a person’s mind-set, rather than circumstances, which further discolours the rose-tinted view. She showed that socially secure people remember their mothers in a more positive light following oxytocin inhalation, while anxious ones remember them as less caring and more distant.

    These studies show that oxytocin is not the saintly molecule we would love to believe it is and its effect depends greatly on individual differences and situation, so it is a rather complex chemical which allows us to look deeper into social interactions.

    The problem with research into oxytocin is that often it aims to categorise its effects and see what it does, rather than how it does it. As we have seen, denominating it 'the moral molecule' couldn't be further away from the truth. Understanding the underlying mechanism which this molecule uses to produce the effects we observed in these studies might lead to less enthusiastic but more accurate conclusions and maybe even development of drugs to treat social illnesses such as anxiety or autism.

    Ana Valentina Florea
    Student, Bournemouth School for Girls
    I am 16 years old and studying Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology and Psychology at Bournemouth School for Girls. I enjoy these subjects because they give me the chance to study different but complementary branches of science. I am especially fond of biological sciences and I plan on studying a course related to this at university to broaden my understanding of how the human body works. I have always admired my dad's enthusiasm for science even though as a younger child I didn't find it as captivating as he did. However, my adoration for science has grown over the past few years, and I now find myself reading scientific books and magazines and watching Netflix documentaries as a means of procrastinating. When I can find some free time for myself, I take pleasure in shopping for clothes and books, reading, watching films and learning about different people from various cultures.

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