Oxytocin, vasopressin flatten social hierarchy and synchronize behaviors.

Posted on under Today's research

New findings from a study of male rhesus macaques show the importance to organizations, and to families of skillfully using the power of the social reward neurochemicals oxytocin and vasopressin (in terms of bonding behavior they act basically the same way).

In most species oxytocin has been proven to increase positive social behaviors and attention paid to others and reduce negative social behaviors like threats and aggression.

Such findings typically derive from work that includes specific tasks performed by the subjects, either people or animals. But the present researchers wanted to understand what happens during spontaneous, naturally occurring interactions following inhalation and injection of both oxytocin and the similar neuropeptide, vasopressin.

What the researchers say: In the study published in Scientific Reports, they found that in male rhesus macaques, the hormones flatten group hierarchy, resulting in dominant monkeys becoming more relaxed and subordinate monkeys becoming more confident. This holds even when just one of a pair receives oxytocin or vasopressin, indicating some sort of non-verbal communication between the animals.

“This society, which is often described as despotic, hierarchical, and regulated by aggression and submission, becomes more egalitarian. Everyone is a little nicer to everyone else,” say the researchers. “They synchronize their facial expressions and their behavior more tightly in time. In other words, they’re paying more attention to each other and when you do this, you get information more quickly and you respond more quickly.”

The work, the first of its kind, involved giving one macaque oxytocin, vasopressin, or saline via inhalation or injection, then pairing him seven times, six with different monkeys and once with an empty chair, in a random order. For their protection, the animals could not physically touch. However, they could interact and could see, hear, and smell each other. The researchers recorded a five-minute exchange, then two separate observers scored the behavior, frame by frame. Seven macaques participated in the inhalation work, and seven participated in the injection work.

“Social dominance in monkeys (and humans) is a really big deal. They live and breathe for it. But here, the curve got flattened,” says the lead researcher. “If you were in the middle, you stayed in the middle. But if you were lower-ranking and you used to be timid, you got a little more assertive, and if you were super dominant, you still knew you were the boss, but you were a little more chill about it. You weren’t always trying to pick a fight.”

What’s more, the alignment of actions—what’s known as behavioral synchrony—when only one half of a duo got the hormone indicates non-verbal cues underlying the activity, he explains. “Somehow, they were conveying this information to each other,” she says. “Communication was obviously not verbal, but little gestures.” This is consistent with previous work showing that oxytocin increases how long one monkey looks at and pays attention to another monkey.

Rhesus macaques offer a valuable comparison to humans because the animals model many of the same social behaviors, live in large groups, and form long-term social bonds.

So, what? The role of these neurochemicals has been assumed by researchers for some time, but this is the first time that they have been proven to produce these effects—especially the flattening of hierarchy and the overall level of mutual acceptance. This is clearly a breakthrough study. Obviously, any organization would want to increase the level of oxytocin in the brains of its employees or members since the advantages of having more collaboration, engagement and work-satisfaction would be very high.

What now? The way to do this is fairly simple: use praise and acknowledgement, look for what people are doing right rather than just what they are doing wrong, give good feedback rather than criticism and above all use a transformational style of leadership.