A nasal spray could cure shyness, a new study suggests.
By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent
Published: 6:00PM BST 23 Sep 2010
Oxytocin ? the love hormone ? could cure shyness
Vial of Oxytocin Photo: PHOTOLIBRARY
Scientists have discovered that the hormone oxytocin could help wallflowers overcome awkwardness in social situations
The chemical dubbed "the hormone of love" is known to increase empathy and bonding – especially parents and their children.
But now researchers have found it improves the social skills of the shy – but has little effect on those who are naturally confident.
The finding could have implications for those with severe social deficiencies, often apparent in conditions like autism.
Researchers at Israel's Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment and Columbia University were examining whether the hormone, which occurs naturally in the body could make us more understanding of others.
They conducted a test of 27 healthy adult men, giving them the hormone or a placebo via a nasal spray and then asking them to perform an 'empathic accuracy task' - which measures their powers of reading the thoughts and feelings of others.
This involved watching others discussing emotional moments in their lives, then rating how they felt those people were feeling.
The scientists, whose research is published in Psychological Science, also measured the participants' social competency, using a test known as AQ which is usually used in autistic patients.
They found that oxytocin did improve powers of empathy – but only among those who were less socially proficient in the first place.
The more socially comfortable participants performed well on the empathetic task regardless of whether they were on oxytocin or placebo.
But less socially proficient participants performed significantly better on oxytocin, with their empathetic powers performance identical to that of the more outgoing participants.
Prof Jennifer Bartz, of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said: "Oxytocin is widely believed to make all people more empathetic and understanding of others.
"Our study contradicts that. Instead, oxytocin appears to be helpful only for those who are less socially proficient.
"Our data show that oxytocin selectively improves social cognition in people who are less socially proficient, but had little impact on more socially proficient individuals.
"While more research is required, these results highlight the potential oxytocin holds for treating social deficits in people with disorders marked by deficits in social functioning like autism."