The recent migration of Middle Eastern and other foreigners into Europe has magnified the large divide in German society between people who do and do not support open borders.
A team of researchers at the University of Bonn, the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa (USA), and the University of Lübeck conducted three experiments on 183 German subjects, under the psychiatrist’s supervision.
Generally speaking, people are more altruistic to their own family and friends than to perfect strangers. “This is partly due to evolution: Only through solidarity and cooperation within one’s own group was it possible to raise children and survive when competing against unknown and rivaling groups for scarce resources in pre-civilized times,” prof. Rene Hurlemann from the Department of Psychiatry, University of Bonn Medical Center explained.
“From a neurobiological perspective, the basis of xenophobia and altruism is not yet precisely understood,” Hurlemann added.
At the Laboratory for Experimental Economics (BonnEconLab) at the University of Bonn, the German subjects completed a donation task “online”.
The experiment involved over 100 participants, and looked at the personal attitudes towards migrants in a questionnaire. Then half of the group received the bonding hormone oxytocin via a nasal spray, while the other half of the group received a placebo before they were made to decide which participants would get the biggest share their 50 euros in donations.
Under the influence of oxytocin, the individuals who tended to show a positive attitude towards migrants doubled their donations to both the locals and the refugees. However, oxytocin had no effect in individuals who expressed a rather defensive attitude towards migrants: In those participants, the tendency to donate was very low to locals and migrants alike. “Oxytocin clearly increases generosity towards those in need, however, if this altruistic fundamental attitude is missing, the hormone alone cannot create it,” says Hurlemann.
But oxytocin in combination with social norms could decrease “xenophobia” the team suggested. In the next experiment, they presented the participants with the average donation their peers made in the first experiment. Half of the participants once again received oxytocin.
The result was astounding. “Now, even people with negative attitudes towards migrants donated up to 74 percent more to refugees than in the previous round,” Marsh said. Thus, oxytocin combined with a social norm, increased the donations for migrants in those skeptical towards immigration, reaching almost half of the sums donated by the group which showed a positive attitude towards foreigners.
Pairing oxytocin with social pressure can help counter the effects of a natural reaction to foreigners, a politically charged issue.
“The combined enhancement of oxytocin and peer influence could diminish selfish motives,” says Hurlemann. “Given the right circumstances, oxytocin may help promote the acceptance and integration of migrants into Western cultures,” says Hurlemann.
Publication: Nina Marsh, Dirk Scheele, Justin Feinstein, Holger Gerhardt, Sabrina Strang, Wolfgang Maier, Rene Hurlemann: Oxytocin-enforced norm compliance reduces xenophobic outgroup rejection, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), DOI: doi/10.1073/pnas.1705853114)