TED Conversations

Amélie Gourdon

Lecturer, Kingston University London

TEDCRED 50+

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Oxytocin, just a positive hormone?

I found Paul Zak's talk disturbingly blindsided me when I first watched it live in July. Recent research showed that at least oxytocin bounding properties have collateral effects which are not so positive. For example, by reinforcijng bounding, it increases preference for our ingroup and prejudice towards the outgroups (De Dreu, Greer, Van Kleef, Shalvi & Handgraaf, 2011).
You can read more about that study (and others regarding oxytocin) on Ed Yong's blog:
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/01/11/no-love-for-outsiders-oxytocin-boosts-favouritism-towards-our-own-ethnic-or-cultural-group/

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    Nov 2 2011: Hi Amélie, I think you are approaching this as a critical thinking scientist might. Of course brain science is in its infancy as a field, of course presenting initial findings as done and dusted facts is daft and would irritate any scientist worth her salt. TED seems to be primarily a storytelling forum these days; that's what the vids are good for: presenting simple ideas for entertainment value. To think that you can show proof by telling an anecdote about a wedding is shoddy. This type of MO seems to matter less on TED when they are reporting the story of an NGO's work in Zambia or updates on new software. Where ongoing scientific research is presented as universally accepted, 'everyone can see it's obviously true' received wisdom, I think TED has gone too far, to its detriment. It *is* possible to present initial findings professionally, with caveats. It isn't OK to offer tidbits to fit in neatly with the existing 'all you need is love' ideas that much of the TED cohort hold. There are always lots of easy answers. They just happen to be wrong most of the time.
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    Nov 1 2011: Hi Debra,

    Sorry if I sound discouraged by the research on the dark side of oxytocin. I am discouraged by simplistic presentation of the state of research, and consequences of that such as people seeing oxytocin as a simple answer to psychopathy or autism.
    I love my fix of oxytocin, but I am also well aware that my bounding to my daughter makes me angry at people who gives her crap (even though my rational self explains to her that it is also part of life), and my love for my partner makes me sad when he has a problem and I cannot be next to him to comfort him.
    Oxytocin is complicated, and simplistic depiction when research is only starting is not helpful.
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    Nov 1 2011: Sorry for smug comment, but the type of comments that have started appearing now regarding this talk are exactly the product of presenting an incomplete picture of the current research and why it is making me angry (actually nothing smug in me at the moment, just annoyement).
    So when I said I knew that TED is not peer-reviewed publication or conference, implicating that standards can be a bit lower, actually I was wrong. Standards should be higher, because the public of TED is not necessarily a specialist public and therefore does not have all the tools to spot fallacies and biased messages. TED speakers have a stronger duty to give them these tools.
  • Nov 2 2011: Paul Zak's concept of oxytocin is amazing and I'm convinced of the claims he has made. However, we must keep in mind that we can only "give of ourselves" according to how much we have evolved. For example, Mr. Zak believes that "all" mammals can be induced to produce more oxytocin...but....in terms of the evolution kingdoms..one can only operate at his or her level of development. He could not produce the same results at every level. For instance, if we wish to induce oxytocin in a psychopath or someone with OBS or frontal lobe damage, the results could not possibly be measured or determined empirically. Perhaps oxytocin levels could be successfully administered but if one does not have the necessary morality function within himself or herself, it would be a waste of effort. We all should know we do not cast "pearls on swines."
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    Nov 2 2011: Hi Anna,

    I couldn't agree more, especially regarding the distinction you drawn between presenting NGO work, or art, and presenting scientific research. But I tend to be more annoyed by the scientist, who, as such, has a responsibility and is not fulfilling it.
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      Nov 2 2011: Absolutely. Scientists do hold the mantle of a different sort of public responsibility. I suppose anytime you see a public figure who's about to launch a book we have to be extra vigilant with the claims, the hype and the lure of the whiter than white grin. "The Moral Molecule" is coming to all good bookshops near you next year. Such fields as neuro-economics, behavioural economics and psycho-neuro-immunology are met with grand scepticism from some of the older, more established quarters of scientific research. It's a shame talks like these seem to play right into the hands of those who dismiss these exciting new realms as the spin of smooth-talking shysters.

      Dr Ben Goldacre's TED talk on evidence-based science:
      http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/ben_goldacre_battling_bad_science.html
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    Nov 1 2011: Totally makes sense I agree. Even more if you assume that oxytocin encouraging caring for your kins is an evolutionary feature, serving survival purposes.
    My question was somehow more of a comment but for a moment I thought you coud not just comment anymore. What I am really curious to know is what people think of Paul Zak's talk in light of those results, recent yet old enough not to be ignored by him. I know it's TED, not a peer-review paper or a scientific conference, but I find this selection bias rather deceitful.
  • Nov 7 2011: Hi Amelie,

    You're right. I'm actually going a little further and proposing that it's more dangerous than that and that Oxytocin induction is being used as widespread manipulative techniques by cults and religious groups etc.

    I am also trying to draw a bit of a line between Oxytocin and racism, based on your findings.

    http://www.ted.com/conversations/6917/are_cults_abusing_oxytocin_is.html

    Thanks.
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    Nov 1 2011: Hi Amelie!
    I am not as discouraged by this research as you appear to be. Here is the way that I see it. At least the oxytocin allows us to experience what love and bonding are about. Once we have experienced it, we begin to see the potential value of another person. For me, an oxytocin junkie with 5 grown children, it expanded and enlarged my capacity to love. Once I loved one child, justified the actions of one child, learned to understand one child, all the others who were not my own benefited from my greater understanding.
    Remember, that in the end we are cocktails of hormones shaken with a large draft of mental cognitions and experiences. In my final analysis, I am convinced that oxytocin leads us to higher ground.
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        Nov 3 2011: Thanks Mark, I should have said 'in summary'.
  • Nov 1 2011: Well, it makes sense. Oxytocin is the hormone of cohesion, of emotional linkage, right? Now, the more a group is closely knit, the more oxytocin is generated within that group, the more its members will perceive their fellows as special, and treat them preferentially. That does not necessarily mean they will be aggressive towards outsiders, but it will take an extra mental effort to reduce their bias.