Oxytocin Plus Peer Pressure Might Overcome Racism

The Hastings Window at Worcester Cathedral portrays the parable of the Good Samaritan, but it seems few people have been listening. Jacek Wojnarowski/Shutterstock

It's not surprising people who express hostility to those they see as foreign are disinclined to donate money to refugees, even when the need is clear. However, a combination of social pressure and a dose of oxytocin can soften hearts. Perhaps the so called “love hormone” can work where reasoned debate or religious teachings fail.

Professor René Hurlemann of the University of Bonn led a team that collected true accounts of 50 people experiencing financial deprivation. Half of these stories were from refugees, the rest from native Germans, with each story describing the items, such as food or housing, needed to meet minimum United Nations standards for a safe and dignified life.

Seventy-six students were given 50 Euro and provided the stories, with the opportunity to donate up to one Euro to each individual who touched their heart, keeping the rest for themselves. This was done where others could see, creating social pressure for generosity. On average, participants gave away more than 30 percent of their money, with 19 percent higher donations to the refugees, presumably reflecting their far more dire circumstances. Unsurprisingly, the team report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, people who had expressed racist or xenophobic views on a previous survey gave less to everyone, and much less to refugees.

A second group underwent a similar process, but with two differences. Participants were given either oxytocin or a placebo 24 hours beforehand and were placed in cubicles, removing peer pressure. However, some of this second sample were also told the average donations of their peers, creating a social norm.

Those given oxytocin were more generous in general, confirming its pro-social reputation, but there was an extra finding. Participants who scored high on xenophobic views gave the same amount to refugees, with or without the average donation information, if they had received the placebo. However, the combination of oxytocin and information increased their refugee contributions by 74 percent, even though neither achieved much on their own.

In the course of arguing about the American healthcare system, author Lauren Morrill tweeted: 

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She clearly struck a cord: 21,000 retweets is exceptional for someone without a large pre-existing following. Yet few people truly care about no one besides themselves. What is far more common are those who care only about people they see as being like them, what psychologists refer to as the ingroup, and can't see a reason to feel compassion for those from a different tribe.

Experts in oxytocin research warn it is no panacea. Still, in a world crying out for compassion, Hurlemann's work suggests Morrill's problem is not beyond solution.

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