Oxytocin - the hormone of trust

'He who does not trust enough will not be trusted' - Lao Tzu


Thank you for joining me for blog 24 highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.


Today's blog continues the series on reward chemicals or so called 'happy hormones' and will cover oxytocin today. Understanding oxytocin will help you understand why we feel good when we meet our friends after a while, why we see groupthink and why loneliness is so difficult.



What is Oxytocin and how do we experience it?

Oxytocin is a feel-good hormone that is released when we feel safe with people. It is a key hormone in love and oxytocin is very high in the instances of childbirth, sex and close friendship. Oxytocin is also released when you trust people or people trust you. We have evolved to seek oxytocin highs, to increase our chances of survival and reproduction. This is not just finding a partner or looking after our children, but making social alliances that lead to collaboration.


In social settings, Oxytocin is stimulated by trust and touch. All over the world, we greet friends or people we want to become friends with some form of touch, whether a handshake, a hug or a kiss. Oxytocin release allows people to drop their guard, effectively signalling that the person they are meeting does not pose a threat.


Oxytocin is described as a 'here and now' (H&N) hormone. This means it is rewarding whilst doing it unlike dopamine, which is more about anticipation. People generally feel at ease after doing activity that releases H&N hormones like oxytocin, endorphins and serotonin (next week's topic). My hypothesis is that 'living in the moment' has something to do with H&N hormones.



Oxytocin in nature

Three fascinating things we see in nature, helps us explain how powerful oxytocin is:


1) Mammal's tend to form herds and packs because there is safety in numbers. When an animal momentarily strays from the pack, they often get a drop in oxytocin which causes the release of stress hormones which makes the animal uncomfortable until it has rejoined the pack. We can relate this to humans through experiencing a very positive feeling in large concert halls or as a part of a large procession.



2) Some species of mammal groom each other. It is thought oxytocin levels rise in both the giver and receiver of the grooming. Grooming partners are important to one another, and it has been observed that when there is trouble in a troop of animals, grooming partners will side with one another. Human loyalty works this way to.


3) Whilst monogamy in nature is quite rare, it does tend to occur in animals with higher levels of oxytocin. Men given a boost of oxytocin rated their partner as more attractive as men with baseline levels of oxytocin.


4) In pregnant birds an experiment was carried out where they reduced oxytocin. The birds stopped building nests or caring for the young when they were born. It is clear here that oxytocin plays a role in caring.


These examples show how oxytocin is important in group dynamics, romantic relationships and child-rearing.


When we do not have enough oxytocin


When we feel lonely, have lost someone's trust or find out someone is not trustworthy we experience a low in oxytocin. This uneasy feeling (like losing your group) can feel quite alarming and generate a sense of urgency. It is also a powerful social deterrent to be ignored or ostracised, in fact the ancient Greeks were known to banish unpopular people from a city for 5 or 10 years.


Loneliness caused by having few deep connections, impacts mental and physical health. It could well be a lack of oxytocin causing this. Single person households within cities of millions are a modern way of living but have different dynamics to the way we have lived for most of human history - having a small number of deep lifelong relationships with people in close daily proximity.


The downside of oxytocin


An oxytocin low leaves people feeling very uneasy. Avoiding an oxytocin low however might lead people to make bad decisions:


1) Not leaving an abusive partner ("Battered wife syndrome") - oxytocin can get you past previous episodes of let down

2) Fear of speaking your mind within a large group due to loyalty and a fear of being ostracised. This leads to the risk of groupthink, and a lack of innovation

3) Not leaving an unpleasant job due to work relationships

4) Being part of a gang that you might not fully agree with, but fear leaving the comfort of the numerical safety


When people are very 'high' on oxytocin with a new romantic partner, they make take decisions to get prematurely get married or have children.



How does Oxytocin impact decision-making?


My hypothesis is that the best decision-making requires an understanding of information without fear of favour and make decisions accordingly. The impact of oxytocin clearly can impact this. For me the fear of an oxytocin low, can mislead you into the realm of bad decision-making. If you are a part of a club, gang (or board?) you might feel you need to tow the line to prove you are 'one of them'. This fear can sometimes trump reason.


How to get Oxytocin naturally


1) Spending time with your loved ones

2) Going to a crowded sports arena or concert hall

3) Getting a pet

4) Joining a club of like-minded people and being friendly

5) Having a massage


So what?


How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:


1) Oxytocin is a feel-good hormone that is released on romance, touch and trust. It provides an evolutionary benefit in survival and reproduction which makes you seek social alliances


2) Oxytocin has large effects on us in group dynamics, romantic relationships and child-rearing. It does impact our decision-making as we fear letting people down sometimes more than doing what might be best


3) You can increase your oxytocin through many natural means.

Thank you for joining. Next week we will cover 'Serotonin - the hormone of good mood'.