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Discovering Empathy

Oxytocin Increases Empathy, Researchers Find

HAIFA (Press Release) — A new University of Haifa study could be of interest to the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams: It shows that the “love hormone” oxytocin raises the level of empathy toward a rival.

“The research findings show that exposure to oxytocin leads people to feel that the other party is also a human being with complex feelings,” said Prof. Simone Shamay-Tsoory of the University of Haifa’s Psychology Department, who led the study.

Oxytocin is a hormone known to be excreted in a variety of social situations, with previous studies showing that inhaling a synthetic version of the hormone increases altruistic feelings, for example.

During this study, conducted by Prof. Shamay-Tsoory with research students Sharon Palgi and Meytal Fischer-Shofty, in cooperation with the Cognitive and Emotional Laboratory at the Shalvata Mental Health Care Center and the Universities of Chicago and Birmingham, the researchers sought to examine whether exposure to oxytocin could increase feelings of empathy, both among people within a group and toward people from a rival or hostile group.

“Given the previous findings, it was hard to know whether exposure to oxytocin would increase the feeling of camaraderie and thus strengthen the positive connections within the group while increasing hostility toward others, or whether the level of empathy would also be raised toward the other, hostile party,” said Shamay-Tsoory.

The study included 55 adult Jewish Israelis who were divided into two groups; one group received oxytocin while the other served as a control group. All participants looked at pictures of painful scenes (a door closing on someone’s fingers, for example) and neutral scenes, and were immediately show a slide with a name. The names included common Israeli names, common Arab names and common European names. After every picture the participants were asked to note to the level of pain the person in the picture had suffered.

The findings showed that those who had inhaled oxytocin recorded a much higher level of empathy toward the pain suffered by the Arab-named characters, a level almost identical to that shown toward the “Jews” or the “Europeans.”

This change was clearly evident only with regard to the Arabs. There were no obvious changes in the level of empathy toward Jews or Europeans in the painful situations or toward any of the groups shown in neutral situations. While the level of empathy toward Arabs was significantly lower in the control group that hadn’t inhaled oxytocin, the level of empathy expressed by both groups toward the other characters was similar.

According to the researchers, the fact that oxytocin only influenced the level of empathy towards the pain of members of the hostile group could indicate that exposure to oxytocin allows people to express the cognitive information already present with regard to the hostile other but that other mechanisms suppress. They said the oxytocin leads us to be more aware of the pain of another – a basic human instinct, which is enhanced or weakened in various social situations – and thus to share the other’s pain as well.

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