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In this study, we tested the validity of 2 popular assumptions about empathy: (a) empathy can be enhanced by oxytocin, a neuropeptide known to be crucial in affiliative behavior, and (b) individual differences in prosocial behavior are positively associated with empathic brain responses. To do so, we measured brain activity in a double-blind placebo-controlled study of 20 male participants either receiving painful stimulation to their own hand (self condition) or observing their female partner receiving painful stimulation to her hand (other condition). Prosocial behavior was measured using a monetary economic interaction game with which participants classified as prosocial (N = 12) or selfish (N = 6), depending on whether they cooperated with another player. Empathy-relevant brain activation (anterior insula) was neither enhanced by oxytocin nor positively associated with prosocial behavior. However, oxytocin reduced amygdala activation when participants received painful stimulation themselves (in the nonsocial condition). Surprisingly, this effect was driven by "selfish" participants. The results suggest that selfish individuals may not be as rational and unemotional as usually suggested, their actions being determined by their feeling anxious rather than by reason.
Social relations between humans critically depend on our affective experiences of others. Oxytocin enhances prosocial behavior, but its effect on humans' affective experience of others is not known. We tested whether oxytocin influences affective ratings, and underlying brain activity, of faces that have been aversively conditioned. Using a standard conditioning procedure, we induced differential negative affective ratings in faces exposed to an aversive conditioning compared with nonconditioning manipulation. This differential negative evaluative effect was abolished by treatment with oxytocin, an effect associated with an attenuation of activity in anterior medial temporal and anterior cingulate cortices. In amygdala and fusiform gyrus, this modulation was stronger for faces with direct gaze, relative to averted gaze, consistent with a relative specificity for socially relevant cues. The data suggest that oxytocin modulates the expression of evaluative conditioning for socially relevant faces via influences on amygdala and fusiform gyrus, an effect that may explain its prosocial effects.
Drawing on recent claims in the study of relationships, attachment, and emotion, the authors hypothesized that romantic love serves a commitment-related function and sexual desire a reproduction-related function. Consistent with these claims, in Study 1, brief experiences of romantic love and sexual desire observed in a 3-min interaction between romantic partners were related to distinct feeling states, distinct nonverbal displays, and commitment- and reproductive-related relationship outcomes, respectively. In Study 2, the nonverbal display of romantic love was related to the release of oxytocin. Discussion focuses on the place of romantic love and sexual desire in the literature on emotion.