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October 24, 2005

Oxytocin, Reciprocity and Civil Society

Scientific research shows we are hard-wired for cooperation and empathy as much as for competition and aggression.

For contemporary economists, most economic behavior revolves around aggression and self-interest. These social emotions are considered the primary drivers of the market. This emphasis, unfortunately, neglects the extremely influential role played by empathy and reciprocity in our economy and in society more generally. New discoveries in neuroscience are revealing just how primary these emotions are in all aspects of our lives.

In particular, scientists have identified what they call “mirror neurons.” These are the physiological means by which we experience what others are experiencing, which enables us to develop the social emotions of trust, affinity and reciprocity. When these emotions are mobilized, the individual understands that his welfare is interdependent with that of others in the group and that cooperation can yield collective gains. In most cases, the inducements for trust and reciprocity are serotonin and oxytocin rewards. Groups based on these emotions are not hierarchical networks in which rewards and resources are controlled by a central figure, the Big Man. Rather, they are peer networks that function cooperatively on principles of trust and reciprocity.

It is not surprising that in many traditional societies, where the social emotions of cooperation and reciprocity are paramount, it is the women who run the markets and the economic affairs. Yet even among male groups, such as hunting parties and military units, the social emotions of bonding and reciprocity are extremely strong. In such cooperative forms of peer organization, the more “feminine” social emotions of trust, empathy, and reciprocity are required. Hence, the importance of oxytocin and serotonin rewards over adrenaline and testosterone.

Although it is tempting to link social emotions to male/female differences, the truth is much more complicated and nuanced. Neither sex has a monopoly on certain types of social emotions. Even intense male activities such as combat and hunting are regulated by the social emotions of trust and empathy. Activities that tend to be primarily female, such as the support of young and food gathering, can be governed by testosterone and adrenaline.

In this sense, Natural Selection is non-discriminatory and sex-blind, as it were. It is willing to assign a variety of social emotions to any gender in order to assure survival. Hence traits that are typically thought of as male or female are but loosely sex linked, and can vary by culture and circumstance. One might conjecture that in the case of cooperative social emotions that Natural Selection is at a group level, and possibly or more recent origin.

Sports teams, such as football, baseball and basketball provide everyday test cases of the comparative advantages of individual versus group oriented forms of social organization. For this reason, it is not surprising how individuals and groups can so strongly identify with sports teams and become so vested in their success. It is hard to explain the excesses, fanaticism and violence of soccer hooligans or the total devotion of alumni and fans to sports teams.

Such games are in many respects the playing out of different models of individual and social competition and cooperation. As such, they are not only role models but also folk narratives about how to compete and succeed in life. In basketball American teams are predominately star and individualistically oriented, whereas European teams, are more group oriented. Seen from this perspective, Olympic competition is more than a set of simple sports meets. It is a competition among different ways of life and values. In American baseball, the Yankees are the embodiment of the star system and the Red Sox the team system. In the military, especially among the elite military, there is little or no tolerance for the “Rambo figure, “who stands out and above the group. The Marine Corps and the Special Forces stress the importance of the unit over the individual, and rapidly cull out self-regarding candidates.

As the tasks for a group become more and more specialized, complex, and interdependent, then the individualistic, Big Man forms of social organization become less scaleable, viable and adaptive. Yet there will always be a tension between the two poles. The challenge to any executive, public policy maker or anyone responsible for the welfare and efficacy of a large group, is how to modulate the balances between the two.