A flood of headlines has appeared over the past few days claiming that the hormone oxytocin may be the key to helping men with wandering eyes stay faithful to their wives. Here is a sampling of just a few of the more splashy media claims I came across: “Did Scientists Discover the Anti-Cheating Drug?” “Love Hormone Promotes Monogamy in Men,” and “Oxytocin May Promote Fidelity (If Only Petraeus Knew).” But is this really true? Could oxytocin actually stop a would-be cheater? And would David Patraeus still be in charge of the CIA if only he had just had a little more of the “cuddle drug” in his system? Based upon my reading of the research, I think we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here.
In a new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, 86 heterosexual men either received three puffs of a nasal spray containing oxytocin or a placebo solution. Approximately half of the men were currently involved in a monogamous romantic relationship and the other half were single. Forty-five minutes after receiving the spray, participants were asked to do one of two things. Some of the participants had to interact with an attractive female research assistant in person. As part of this interaction, subjects had to choose the ideal distance to stand from her. The other participants were seated at a computer and were shown images of attractive females. These subjects had a joystick they could use to increase or decrease the size of the picture by pulling it toward or away from their body.
Results revealed a significant interaction between men’s relationship status and the type of treatment they received (i.e., oxytocin or placebo). Specifically, men in relationships placed a larger distance between themselves and the attractive woman than did the single guys, but only when given oxytocin. Partnered guys stayed an average of 27 to 31 inches (68-79 cm) away, whereas single guys stayed 21 to 24 inches (54-61 cm) away. Regardless of relationship status, men who received the placebo did not differ in their preferred distance and maintained a distance similar to the single guys who received oxytocin (i.e., approximately 21-24 inches). Thus, the only people who were different were the committed guys who got the active drug.
The computerized portion of the study revealed a similar interaction. In the oxytocin condition, committed guys pushed the joystick away from themselves, thereby making the picture of the woman smaller, whereas single guys pulled the joystick toward their bodies, thereby making the picture larger. There were no differences among men in the placebo condition.
So oxytocin therefore prevents cheating, right? Not exactly. First, there was no actual measure of infidelity or even temptation to cheat. We’re just assuming that how far they stood and how big they made the picture are proxies for temptation. To demonstrate that oxytocin actually reduces cheating, we would need a long-term clinical trial in which guys in relationships are given oxytocin or a placebo and then we would see who reports cheating more over a specified period of time. Second, is keeping an extra 6 or 7 inches away from someone who is really hot actually going to ensure fidelity? It’s not like the guys who got oxytocin ran away screaming—they just stood back an extra couple of inches. Sure, that distance is statistically significant, but is it practically significant? And finally, keep in mind that the supposed “fidelity boost” only happened to committed guys who got a dose of oxytocin and not to the committed guys who got the placebo. The latter guys were no different from the single men. So if the authors want to argue that physical proximity to an attractive target is a sign of cheating, then it would appear that all guys are equally tempted to cheat unless given an artificial dose of hormones. So what’s the implication of this research? That men in monogamous marriages should be given automatic prescriptions for oxytocin to ward off their natural cheating tendencies?
At any rate, the results of this study are certainly provocative, but in my view, the researchers and media are really stretching the findings to say that oxytocin "promotes fidelity" because there's really no evidence of that here.
To read more about this research, see: Scheele, D., Striepens, N., Gunturkun, O., Deutschlander, S., Maier, W., Kendrick, K. M., & Hurlemann, R. (2012). Oxytocin modulates social distance between males and females. The Journal of Neuroscience, 32, 16074-16079. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2755-12.2012
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