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The Dark Side of Oxytocin

adult learning behavioral science business objectives corporate training gamification motivation Apr 22, 2019

by Jonathan Peters, PhD
Chief Motivation Officer, Sententia Gamification

In several of my articles and webinars, I’ve noted the importance of story in learning programs. Specifically, I mentioned the work of Paul Zak who, with the help of the Department of Defense, has shown that when we hear a character-driven story, even if it is as emotionless as the founding story of your company, we get a nice spike of oxytocin.               

Zak has made a name for himself in the study of oxytocin, being called the “Love Doctor” for his prescription of eight hugs a day. And while love can make the world go ‘round, it turns out it really isn’t as simple as eight hugs, especially during the #metoo era.               

Mammals produce oxytocin in their nervous system and bloodstream. It’s most obvious use is to produce parental bonding with huge spikes in mothers while breastfeeding. And while women tend to produce more oxytocin (and have the receptors to grab the neurochemical), men also have escalations of oxytocin when engaged with their children.               

But oxytocin’s affects involve more than parent-child bonding. When participants are given doses of oxytocin in studies of trust and responsibility, researchers found that people engaged in more moral behavior. (Check out Paul Zak’s TedTalk)               

While it's true that your learners will be more generous and cooperative if you can illicit oxytocin releases through certain game mechanics and story, it is important to realize there is a dark side to oxytocin. It turns out we really can’t create world peace by hugging eight people a day.               

When we look at most mammalian species, increased oxytocin levels also cause territoriality and hostility toward outsiders. And studies show people aren’t different. When researchers put people into groups, they found that oxytocin increases, which changed how participants treated group versus non-group members.               

In one study of oxytocin, participants were told a run-away trolley was headed toward five people with foreign sounding names. The participants had to decide whether to divert the trolley away from the group, but in doing so, would kill a person on the other track who was named Dirk (this was a Dutch study). Most people, of course would sacrifice the one person for the preservation of the five. However, when participants were given a dose of oxytocin, most people would save the Dutchman at the detriment of people with names like Helmut and Youssef.               

While studies like this reveal underlying causes of racial and religious tensions, it also has some interesting implications for our learning programs.               

Do you place people in teams in your learning programs? Do those teams “compete” with other teams? If so, you’ve probably noticed that groups draw together, creating an us-vs-them attitude as they compete. While creating team camaraderie is generally a good thing, it’s likely that the resentment they feel for non-group people will continue after your exercise.               

Like so many other forays into gamification, we have to be cautious about unintended consequences. Yes, group membership and competition can produce increased levels of oxytocin, which will draw people together and make them more generous and trusting with the members of their group. But what about the resulting resentment and negative feelings group members will have for people not in their group? Are you accidentally pitting teams or departments against each other? Instead of concentrating on ways to outperform industry competitors, are employees devoting their time to outsmarting each other?

And now I’ve just made your job more difficult by adding yet another caution when you are gamifying learning experiences.

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