A Blog by Ed Yong

Oxytocin: the hype hormone

The Guardian has run a woeful ad interview about oxytocin, featuring Paul Zak who has a book to sell about the topic. This follows on from their woeful ad interview about oxytocin last August, featuring Paul Zak who has a book to sell about the topic. (In the middle, there was a decent piece by Gareth Leng, who does not have a book to sell about the topic – a momentary lapse, I’m sure.)

You may have heard of oxytocin as the “moral molecule” or the “hug hormone” or the “cuddle chemical”. Unleashed by hugs, available in a handy nasal spray, and possessed with the ability to boost trust, empathy and a laundry list of virtues, it is apparently the cure to all the world’s social ills.

Except it’s not.

As per usual, it’s a little more complicated than that. I had a bit of a rant about oxytocin hype this morning on Twitter, which Rachel Feltman kindly collected into a Storify. It’s below, or you can search for the hashtag #schmoxytocin. Alternatively, a link to the actual page on Storify.

Also, here’s a link to my New Scientist feature about oxytocin (PDF) where I talk about why it’s much more than a simple “hug hormone” and why hype about oxytocins has the potential to do some real damage to vulnerable people.

16 thoughts on “Oxytocin: the hype hormone

  1. …just google folks :)
    “Check with your doctor if any of these most COMMON side effects persist or become bothersome when using Oxytocin:

    Nausea; vomiting; more intense or abrupt contractions of the uterus.

    Seek medical attention right away if any of these SEVERE side effects occur when using Oxytocin:

    Severe allergic reactions (rash; hives; itching; difficulty breathing; tightness in the chest; swelling of the mouth, face, lips, or tongue); blood clotting problems; changes in heart rate; heavy or continued bleeding after childbirth; irregular heartbeat; pooling of blood in the pelvis; ruptured uterus.

    Fetus: Bleeding in the eye; irregular heartbeat; seizures; slow heartbeat.

    This is not a complete list of all side effects that may occur…”

  2. But his worshipers love him. I posted a critical review of his book and you should see the flak I’m STILL taking for it weeks later. (I’m sure you’re taking your own share of flak.) Check out “Moral Molecule” on Amazon and look for the review by Aer O’Head (moi). I had no idea of what I was in for by posting such a criticism of Zak. I figured I was doing people a favor by showing him and his work in a more REALISTIC light, and suggesting that they look beyond the hype and snake oil. Silly me.


  3. Thanks for writing this! great rebuttal. this kind of cheerfully gullible hype is so annoying.

  4. Thanks Ed (and Rachel for the Storify). Totally fun to read all at once.

    I suggest you try taking some oxytocin for your temper though, Ed. That “schmoxytocin” sounds made up.

  5. why would it be? Oxytocin is evolutionarily ancient. … Is it a “moral molecule” for inverts too?

    This is facile. New functions for hormonal signals are easily gained and lost in evolution via receptor expression. In turtles oxytocin induces nesting behavior, but nobody’s surprised that women aren’t digging egg-holes in the dirt.

  6. @ChasCPeterson – that’s fair. I actually thought that after I tweeted it but for the sake of completeness, the full rant is there. Mainly wanted to point out the hormone’s ancient and multi-faceted history.

  7. Yep, really. Actually, I think it worked quite well. I had already written that New Scientist piece, which is essentially a longer prose critique, but with little attention. Twitter’s immediacy makes it easier to bring the issue to wider attention. It allows people to spread the word very quickly, it puts stuff in front of a lot of other science writers and journalists who follow me, and the hashtag allows everything to be collected easily, as above.

  8. Well, Aer O’Head, if they have been taking oxytocin they will be more aggressive to someone who appears to be in a distant and opposing group, in some situations if I understand correctly.

    How about branding it the troll hormone?

  9. @Pat Your comment to me (Aer O’Head) refers to what exactly? Something I posted in THIS discussion? Or on the Amazon discussion? I’m not sure who “they” refers to, or why you got on this particular tangent. As for “branding” oxytocin as anything at all — especially anything with a cute and catchy phrase — I think that’s exactly what Ed Yong seems to be addressing here. This is a multifaceted hormone, and it won’t fit nicely into any particular pigeonhole. But yes, I suppose it could factor into trolling.

  10. Airy Head, that guy actually has a point – you shouldn’t be posting your “critical” (is that how you call your nonsensical diarrhea?) review of a book that you haven’t even read. Ed, are you serious about your claims that unconditionally loving and taking care of an autistic child is somehow harmful to him or her? Of course you’ll get attention on Twitter – any crap like this can be spread quickly and efficiently. Seriously, guys, you desperately need some love, as you sound like a bunch of loonies. Ed, you should be out there ranting against the stupid paper you cited in your “in-depth” report – but no, those idiots’ argument agrees with yours.

  11. “Ed, are you serious about your claims that unconditionally loving and taking care of an autistic child is somehow harmful to him or her?”

    Equally I could ask if you, Lindsay, are serious about your claims that it’s okay to punch kittens.

    (See how it’s galling when someone just makes up opinions for you?)

  12. Was it something I said?

    If people are referring to comments I made in the Amazon discussion, please respond to them THERE rather than here. You may understand what you’re talking about, but I’m certain that nobody else does. Even in that context, I’m not sure I understand what you said. Or meant.

  13. Ed, I get the feeling your sense of esteem needs no oxytocin boosts but I still say, cripes this was brilliant. 14 comments here? That’s it? It’s a crime!

    I am so tired of these well meaning but annoying TED Berkeley Portlandia love gurus who wade in self affirmation. And call it science. Where’s the mention of caveats and limitations? Never mind the so-called happiness studies that don’t even differentiate between different types of happiness and the hilariously morose Beyond Belief “happiness” seminars with the lot of unsmiling cranks at the wheel.

    There, my rant is complete too.

  14. To re-open this bag of worms (see, mixing my metaphors – must be too much Oxytocin), will you be mentioning this in your up-coming TED Talk?

    Loving the irony there :-)

    [Sadly, no! It’s off-topic but I will be sliding in a message about avoiding simplistic conclusions in science. In seriousness, my criticism of TED has always been that it favours “big idea” hype over the complexity that science really entails. So, I will be trying to not do that. You can judge for yourself if I succeed. – Ed]

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