How to reduce xenophobia and strengthen altruism? Researchers at Bonn University Hospital have shown in a new study that the binding hormone oxytocin, together with social norms, dramatically increases willingness to give money to refugees in need, even among those in need. people who tend to have a skeptical attitude towards migrants. The results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
We tend to be more altruistic to our own family and friends than complete strangers. The recent migration of refugees from the Middle East to European societies has further magnified the problem, with a large gap in society between those who support and do not support refugees. “This is partly due to evolution: it was only through solidarity and cooperation within one’s own group that it was possible to raise children and survive in the face of unknown and rival groups. for resources that were scarce in pre-civilized times, âexplains Professor Rene Hurlemann of the department. of Psychiatry, University of Bonn Medical Center. However, this is diametrically opposed to the parable of the Good Samaritan, which serves as an example of selfless altruism in describing a Samaritan who incurs personal expense to help a stranger in need. âFrom a neurobiological point of view, the basis of xenophobia and altruism is not yet fully understood,â explains Hurlemann.
Under the supervision of the psychiatrist, a team of researchers from the University of Bonn, the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa (USA) and the University of LÃ¼beck carried out three experiments in which they tested a total of 183 subjects, all natives of Germany. . At the Laboratory for Experimental Economics (BonnEconLab) at the University of Bonn, they performed a donation task on a computer. The donation task included 50 genuine case vignettes depicting the personal needs of poor people, of which 25 were described as local people in need, while the remaining 25 were described as refugees.
With an endowment of 50 euros, participants could decide on a case-by-case basis whether they wished to donate an amount between zero and one euro. Test subjects were allowed to keep any money that was not donated. âWe were surprised that participants in the first experiment gave about 20% more to refugees than to local people in need,â says Nina Marsh of Professor Hurlemann’s team.
Questionnaire on attitude towards migrants
In another independent experiment involving over 100 participants, subjects’ personal attitudes towards refugees were assessed in a questionnaire. Then, half of the group received the oxytocin binding hormone via a nasal spray, while the other half of the group received a placebo before being exposed to the donation task established in the first experiment: again , the participants decided how much of their 50 euros they wanted to donate to residents or refugees.
Under the influence of oxytocin, individuals who tended to show a positive attitude towards refugees doubled their donations to both locals and refugees. However, oxytocin had no effect in individuals who expressed a rather defensive attitude towards migrants: in these participants, the tendency to donate was very low, for both locals and refugees. âOxytocin clearly increases generosity to those in need, however, if this basic altruistic attitude is lacking, the hormone alone cannot create it,â says Hurlemann.
Oxytocin in combination with social norms decreases xenophobia
How can people who tend to have a xenophobic attitude be motivated to be more altruistic? The researchers speculated that adding social norms could be a starting point. In a third experiment, they thus presented to the participants the average donation made by their peers during the first experiment under each case vignette. Half of the participants received oxytocin again. The result was astonishing. âNow even people with negative attitudes towards migrants have given refugees up to 74% more than in the previous cycle,â reports Nina Marsh. Thanks to the combined administration of oxytocin with a social norm, donations for refugees among migrant skeptics almost reached half of the sums paid by the group, which showed a positive attitude towards the refugees.
What conclusions can we draw from these results? It appears that associating oxytocin with a social norm may help counter the effects of xenophobia by reinforcing altruistic behavior towards refugees. âThe combined improvement in oxytocin and peer influence could decrease selfish motivations,â says Hurlemann. If people we trust, such as supervisors, neighbors or friends, serve as a role model by publicizing their positive attitude towards refugees, more people are likely to feel motivated to help. In such a prosocial setting, oxytocin could increase confidence and minimize anxiety – experience shows that the level of oxytocin in the blood increases during social interactions and shared activities. âUnder the right circumstances, oxytocin can help promote acceptance and integration of migrants into Western cultures,â says Hurlemann.
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