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The Oxytocin Paradox: My Readings

Scientists try to reconcile the social and antisocial aspects of oxytocin in a new model.

Journal Reference: Bethlehem, R. A., Baron-Cohen, S., van Honk, J., Auyeung, B., & Bos, P. A. (2014). The oxytocin paradox. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 8, 48.

Publication Date: 17 February, 2014


Bethlehem et al., provided a model to reconcile oxytocin’s pro- and anti-social effects. While oxytocin is generally considered to reduce fear and enhance trust and empathy, it is also associated with envy and ethnocentricity. The group of five neuroscientists developed a model in which reduction of anxiety, coupled with social reward sensitivity generally increases the awareness and value of social signals. This inflation of in-group social signal value, exacerbates the otherness of any outgroup or its perceived unpredictability.  For an animal trainer, this model suggests that building trust via oxytocin might be expected to have an anti-social side effect such as resource guarding. 


Summary in more detail

As the trust hormone, oxytocin might be the holy grail for animal trainers, but what about its dark side? Bethlehem and coauthors provide a cogent summary of this dark side in the development of the model to reconcile the pro- and anti-social aspects of oxytocin.

If anything seems too good to be true, it probably is, and unfortunately that equally applies to the love and trust molecule itself, oxytocin. What kind of errors could stem from equating trust with oxytocin level?  How is the dark side of oxytocin going to manifest in non-humans?

“… the modulation of OXT on these core processes can lead to different behavioral outcomes dependent on person and situation, especially since reward processing and anxiety in specific contexts differs from person to person.”

Recognizing positive social signals
Anxiolytic (fear reducing)Improved coping mechanisms
Approach and protective behaviors
In-group conformity
Out-group rejection
Effects of Oxytocin

Oxytocin decreases the amygdala activity in predictable threats and it increases activity in the ventral striatum, activating both hedonistic and incentive reward processing (liking and wanting). This enhances social reward sensitivity. It becomes easier to perceive social cues, eye contact increases, and there is more awareness of positive cues.

But the whole system is context dependent. Cues, history, environment, and personality all constrain the outcome. Feedback from the outcome changes the parameters of the next oxytocin releasing event.

The implications of this study for me as an animal trainer are merely cautionary. What are the collateral effects of training in such a way as to increase oxytocin? 

Keywords: oxytocin, side-effects

Mind map of emotional effects of oxytocin
Oxytocin tips the balance in favor of social reward sensitivity, but is also has a dark side.

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