Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences (FMG)
Psychology Research Institute (PsyRes)
To protect and promote the well-being of others, humans may bend the truth and behave unethically. Here we link such tendencies
to oxytocin, a neuropeptide known to promote affiliation and cooperation with others. Using a simple coin-toss prediction
task in which participants could dishonestly report their performance levels to benefit their group’s outcome, we tested the
prediction that oxytocin increases group-serving dishonesty. A double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment allowing individuals
to lie privately and anonymously to benefit themselves and fellow group members showed that healthy males (n = 60) receiving
intranasal oxytocin, rather than placebo, lied more to benefit their group, and did so faster, yet did not necessarily do
so because they expected reciprocal dishonesty from fellow group members. Treatment effects emerged when lying had financial
consequences and money could be gained; when losses were at stake, individuals in placebo and oxytocin conditions lied to
similar degrees. In a control condition (n = 60) in which dishonesty only benefited participants themselves, but not fellow
group members, oxytocin did not influence lying. Together, these findings fit a functional perspective on morality revealing
dishonesty to be plastic and rooted in evolved neurobiological circuitries, and align with work showing that oxytocin shifts
the decision-maker’s focus from self to group interests. These findings highlight the role of bonding and cooperation in shaping
dishonesty, providing insight into when and why collaboration turns into corruption.
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