Oxytocin spreads cooperation in social networks


Summary: Administration of oxytocin to influential members of a social network helped increase overall group cooperation.

Source: SfN

According to a new study published in Journal of Neuroscience.

Large groups of people cannot coexist peacefully without cooperation – more social and cooperative people tend to become leaders in formal organizations and informal social groups. Yet cooperation can conflict with individual goals.

Oxytocin, known for its involvement in bonding, may explain how humans developed the cooperation needed to live in groups.

Li et al. gave intranasal oxytocin or a saline placebo to participants who occupied the most influential or central role in artificial social networks. Participants played a series of virtual games with strangers.

Diagram of artificial social networks in cooperative games. Credit: Li et al., JNeurosci 2022

In one game, core members received money from peripheral members and set a threshold for the minimum bid they would accept. When core members were given oxytocin, cooperation spread through the network; after several rounds of play, the offer and the acceptance threshold evolved into a 50/50 split, a sign of cooperation.

In another game, oxytocin increased the likelihood of core members choosing to cooperate and then punishing peripheral members for uncooperative behavior, which followed the increase in group cooperation.

These results indicate that cooperation from influential in-group members spreads to the rest of the group, likely through increased enforcement of social norms.

About this social neuroscience research news

Author: Calli McMurray
Source: SfN
Contact: Calli McMurray – SfN
Image: Image is credited to Li et al., JNeurosci 2022

Original research: Access closed.
Oxytocin and the punitive hub — Dynamic diffusion of cooperation in human social networksby Li et al. Journal of Neuroscience


Oxytocin and the punitive hub — Dynamic diffusion of cooperation in human social networks

Human society operates on large-scale cooperation. However, individual differences in cooperation and incentives to circumvent the cooperation of others make large-scale cooperation fragile and can lead to reduced social welfare. Thus, how individual cooperation spreads through human social networks remains puzzling from an ecological, evolutionary, and societal perspective.

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Here, we identify oxytocin and costly punishment as biobehavioral mechanisms that facilitate the spread of cooperation in social networks. In three laboratory experiments (not = 870 human participants, 373 men and 497 women), individuals were embedded in heterogeneous networks and made repeated decisions with feedback in trust games (not = 342), ultimatum negotiation (not = 324), and the prisoner’s dilemma with punishment (not = 204).

In each heterogeneous network, centrally positioned individuals (central nodes) received intranasal oxytocin (or placebo). Giving oxytocin (as opposed to a matching placebo) to core individuals increased their trust and enforcement of cooperative norms.

Oxytocin-enhanced enforcement of norms, but not increased trust, explained the spread of cooperation through the social network.

Moreover, based on evolutionary game theory, we simulated computational agents that interacted in heterogeneous networks with central nodes varying in terms of levels of cooperation and punishment.

The simulation results confirmed that central cooperators’ willingness to punish non-cooperation enabled network permeation and enabled the evolution of network cooperation.

These findings identify an immediate oxytocin-initiated mechanism explaining how individual cooperation facilitates network-scale cooperation in human society and shed light on the widespread phenomenon of heterogeneous composition and application systems at all levels of life. .


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