Could inhaling something really help foster world peace, as some hippies claim?
Don’t count on it. Yet a study has found that sniffing one special substance may make people feel more sorry for the suffering of outsiders, stigmatized people and outright enemies. That chemical is oxytocin, a hormone already naturally present in the brain and sometimes called the trust hormone.
The study found that even people involved in one of the world’s most emotionally fraught conflicts, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, seem to find a new heart for the other side after they inhale oxytocin.
But the findings also run counter to those of past studies in some ways, suggesting that biologists are only beginning to clarify the function of the fascinating hormone known to play a role in social behavior and bonding in both humans and animals.
“Oxytocin remarkably increased empathy to the pain of Palestinians” among Jewish Israelis in an experiment, wrote researchers, reporting their findings Sept. 22 online in the journalPsychoneuroendocrinology. The increased empathy reduced the participants’ “in-group bias,” they added—the predominant tendency of people to show more empathy for “those who they perceive as similar to themselves.”
In their report, the researchers said they recruited 55 Jewish Israelis. These participants were shown some photos of people in painful situations, such as having a car hood closed on a hand, and other photos of people in non-painful situations. Labels with the photos indicated that the pictured person was from one of three groups. Either he or she was another Israeli Jew; or an Arab—often viewed as the “enemy” group for Israelis; or a European, chosen as a middle-ground group.
The participants viewed the photos after having taken either oxytocin or an inactive substance, and were later assessed for how much empathy they showed to the people pictured.
Oxytocin significantly increased participants’ empathy for the Arabs in pain, while leaving unchanged their empathy for the other two groups in pain, the researchers found. That suggests, they added, that oxytocin doesn’t necessarily make people empathize more with those they already empathize with.
The experimenters measured viewers’ empathy by asking them to rate how much pain they thought the pictured person was experiencing.
Past studies indicate that taking oxytocin helps people overcome shyness, increases their trust in others, and helps them read others’ emotional states better. But findings with oxytocin and empathy have been mixed. Some studies have found that oxytocin increases people’s empathy for others in their own group—at the expense of those outside the group. That’s almost the opposite of the new findings.
So why the inconsistency?
It might have to do with the precise function of oxytocin, said the authors of the new study, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory of the University of Haifa in Israel, Ahmad Abu-Akel of the University of Birmingham in the U.K., and colleagues. Research suggests oxytocin seems to make “socially relevant information” more vivid in the viewer’s mind, they wrote, and the empathy effects follow.
So if study participants have no particular information about the others that they are dealing with, oxytocin might not increase empathy, they argued. This may have been the case with some past studies, where participants were divided into “teams” but not provided any information about each other.
“Our results may have important implications for reconciliation and conflict resolution,” the researchers wrote. “While speculative, training Israeli and Palestinian members of the negotiating parties to consciously contemplate the perspective of the other,” they went on, could help create “an environment where peace is given a chance.”
Source : http://www.world-science.net/