Does the binding hormone oxytocin counteract xenophobia?

Oxytocin and norms weaken xenophobia
Especially during the refugee crisis it became clear that many people are very afraid of the “foreign” and “unknown”. Many said they fear "alienation", the flooding of their own social areas.

Xenophobia or xenophobia can quickly turn into xenophobia, which is then expressed verbally but also in physical attacks. A team led by Prof. Rene Hurlemann from the Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University Clinic in Bonn has now made an amazing discovery. With the happiness hormone oxytocin, study participants were persuaded to revise the xenophobic attitude and to develop more altruism.

Your family and friends are usually closer to you than strangers. Even during the refugee crisis, it became apparent that far from everyone tends to support migrants. "This is partly due to evolution: Only through cohesion and cooperation within your own group was it possible in pre-civilizational times to raise young people and survive in competition for scarce resources with foreign and rival groups," explains Prof. Rene Hurlemann from the Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University Hospital Bonn.

However, this would be diametrically opposed to the parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan helps a stranger while accepting personal disadvantages and is considered an example of selfless charity. "From a neurobiological point of view, the basics of xenophobia and altruism are not yet fully understood," says Hurlemann.

Under the direction of the psychiatrist, a team of scientists from the University of Bonn, the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa (USA) and the University of Lübeck tested a total of 183 subjects. All of them were students from Germany. In the Laboratory for Experimental Economic Research (BonnEconLab) at the University of Bonn, they completed a donation task on the computer. The concrete donation requests - for example clothing - were presented by 50 needy people, 25 of whom came from Germany; 25 others were refugees.

With a starting credit of 50 euros, the test participants could decide separately for each case whether they wanted to donate a sum between zero and one euro. The test subjects were allowed to keep what was not donated. "We were surprised that the participants in the first experiment donated around 20 percent more to refugees than to indigenous people in need," says Nina Marsh from Prof. Hurlemann's team.

Questionnaire on attitudes towards migrants
In a run with more than 100 subjects, the personal attitude towards refugees was first asked using a questionnaire. Then one half received the binding hormone oxytocin via a nasal spray, the other half received only a dummy drug and served as a comparison group. Again, it was possible to decide with a starting credit of 50 euros how much of it should be donated to locals or refugees.

Under the influence of the binding hormone, donations for refugees as well as for locals doubled for those test participants who showed a tendency to be positive towards refugees. On the other hand, if the test subjects indicated a more protective attitude towards migrants, oxytocin had no effect: the propensity to donate was very low for all those in need. “Obviously, oxytocin increases generosity towards the needy; if this altruistic attitude is lacking, the hormone dose cannot produce it on its own, ”says Hurlemann.

Oxytocin and standards have an effect
How can people with a tendency towards xenophobia be motivated to be more altruistic? The scientists assumed that the specification of social norms could be a starting point. For this reason, they presented the test subjects with the average donation result of their predecessors in the first experiment for each case study in a third round. Half of the subjects were again given oxytocin. The result was astonishing. “Now people with a basically negative attitude donate up to 74 percent more for refugees than in the previous round. Donations for locals, on the other hand, did not increase, ”reports Nina Marsh. Thanks to the combined administration of hormone and social norm, the donation volume of the foreign skeptics reached almost 50 percent of that of the altruistic group.

What conclusions can you draw from this result? "Skepticism about migrants could be countered with social norms," ​​says Hurlemann. If, for example, familiar people such as superiors, neighbors or friends set a good example, publicized their positive attitude for refugees and appealed to altruism, more people from the tendentially xenophobic group would also feel motivated to help with this social guideline. The binding hormone oxytocin could strengthen trust and alleviate fears - experience shows that the level of oxytocin in the blood increases during joint activities. "That would be an ideal situation to promote the acceptance and integration of immigrants who rely on our help," says Hurlemann. (Prof. Dr. Rene Hurlemann)

Publication: Nina Marsh, Dirk Scheele, Justin Feinstein, Holger Gerhardt, Sabrina Strang, Wolfgang Maier, Rene Hurlemann: Oxytocin-enforced norm compliance reduces xenophobic outgroup rejection, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), DOI: 10.1073 / pnas. 170585311.

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