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Oxytocin spreads collaboration in social networks

Overview: Administering oxytocin to influential members of a social network helped increase overall group collaboration.

Source: SfN

Administering oxytocin to the central members of a social network spreads cooperation through increased punishment of uncooperative behavior, according to new research published in Journal of Neuroscience

Large groups of people cannot coexist peacefully without cooperation – more social and cooperative people end up as leaders in formal organizations and informal social groups. However, collaboration can clash with individual goals.

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

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

This shows a diagram from the study:
Scheme of the artificial social networks in the cooperation games. Credit: Li et al., JNeurosci 2022

In one game, the central members received money from peripheral members and set a threshold on the minimum offer they would accept. When the central members were given oxytocin, the collaboration spread through the network; after many rounds of play, the offer and acceptance threshold evolved to a fifty-fifty division, a sign of cooperation.

In another game, oxytocin increased the likelihood that central members would choose to cooperate and then punish peripheral members for uncooperative behavior, which followed with the increase in group cooperation.

These results indicate that the collaboration of influential group members extends to the rest of the group, probably through increased enforcement of social norms.

About this social neuroscience research news

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

Original research: Closed access.
Oxytocin and the Punishment Hub – Dynamic Diffusion of Collaboration in Human Social Networksby Li et al. Journal of Neuroscience


Oxytocin and the Punishment Hub – Dynamic Diffusion of Collaboration in Human Social Networks

Human society works on large scale cooperation. However, individual differences in cooperation and incentives to piggyback on the cooperation of others make large-scale cooperation vulnerable and can lead to reduced social welfare. How individual collaboration spreads through human social networks thus remains a mystery from ecological, evolutionary and societal perspectives.

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This shows the robot

Here we identify oxytocin and expensive punishment as biobehavioural mechanisms that facilitate the spread of collaboration in social networks. In three laboratory experiments (n = 870 human participants, 373 males and 497 females), individuals were embedded in heterogeneous networks and made repeated decisions with feedback in trust games (n = 342), ultimatum negotiations (n = 324), and prisoner’s dilemma with punishment (n = 204).

In each heterogeneous network, individuals at central positions (hub nodes) received intranasal oxytocin (or placebo). Administering oxytocin (versus matching placebo) to central subjects increased their confidence and maintenance of cooperation standards.

Oxytocin-enhanced norm enforcement, but no increased trust, explained the spread of collaboration across the social network.

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

Simulation results confirmed that the willingness of central employees to penalize non-cooperation enabled network penetration and enabled the evolution of network collaboration.

These results identify an oxytocin-initiated proximal mechanism that explains how individual collaboration enables network-wide collaboration in human society and shed light on the widespread phenomenon of heterogeneous composition and enforcement systems at all levels of life.

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