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New Years Hug
It’s Christmas time and many of us take this opportunity to visit family, friends and old acquaintances. We greet, kiss, hug and get together with each other. These are golden times for our cuddle hormone, oxytocin. Until recently we had thought that oxytocin had a solely reinforcing effect on relationships, but we recently discovered that this hormone also has some antisocial side effects.
Oxytocin is a hormone that is active in most vertebrates. For millions of years it has controlled the socializing aspect of our instincts and has ensured that we connect with each other. It also regulates the urge to posterity and it helps us to succeed in our parental role. In women, it even has a special function during birthing and breast-feeding.
Oxytocin is nearly always activated at most moments of social contact. Eye contact, attentiveness, conversations, expressed appreciation and physical affection all promote the production of this hormone. When our blood has high levels of oxytocin, its bonding effect strengthens trust and stimulates us to display affection. At family gatherings, but even during a good teambuilding session, a great deal of oxytocin is secreted into the bloodstream. Thus it provides the “together strong” principle
Distribution of scarce resources
However, the effect of oxytocin goes beyond that of simply enhancing relationships. This hormone also stimulates us to care for those with whom we live and work. In the distant past, say 40,000 years ago, our social environment was restricted to a tribe made up of several families. These days our society has a wide variety of social relationships, but the main principle remains the same. Whenever there is any kind of scarcity, we distinguish between intimates and the rest, between an inside and an outside group. In the inner group all goods are shared while we compete with the outside group in a defensive manner (stay away, that belongs to us …). Oxytocin thus regulates with whom we want to share the (Christmas) cake. This leads to the “own group first” principle.
Closeness of a strong group
A strong group not only has advantages. A close family or a strong team can secede and thus create an impregnable boundary between inside and out. In such cases it is difficult for novices to join the group and to become accepted. In organizations a close clique can resist influences from above. Such a team then exhibits a high resistance to all policy changes initiated by top management. If a strong team gets a new manager, it’s debatable whether he will be allowed to play his role. Organizations therefore strive for an optimum team strength, not a maximum.
Oxytocin and stress
Another theme is the positive stress regulating influence of oxytocin. It has been said that behind every successful manager there stands a stable partner who literally and figuratively provides backing. Such a relationship creates a steady stream of oxytocin that supports both in coping with stress. Thanks to the benefit of a stable relationship we can better handle difficult episodes in our lives and careers.
This same phenomenon was also encountered in a recent study on the distinction between eight major companies that had weathered the economic crisis and eight similar companies that almost went bankrupt during the same period. One of the most notable differences between the two groups of companies is that the CEOs of the stable companies are all still married with their first partner, while the CEOs of failed companies had all had (multiple) divorces. Good relationships, and thus the release of oxytocin, are effective means for a steady course through which one can survive an economic crisis.
Oxytocin and safe behavior
Furthermore, it appears that oxytocin has a fear reducing effect. The activities of our anxiety center (the amygdale) can be dimmed by it. This make us feel stronger. In situations where we are fearful, we experience a higher degree of control when operating in a group. But in situations where we already have few inhibitions, the group contact can ensure that our behavior gets out of hand. The larger the group, the more quickly we lose our inhibitions and the sooner we are willing to accept a safety risk. So try to be extra vigilant on the street during this festive period, when fireworks are lit by groups of youngsters.
2014 was a good year for propagating Brain Based Safety. I felt strongly connected to a professional group which aims at making the world a safer place. I welcomed many new clients and began several partnerships. The blog and the book reached hundreds of readers and I had the opportunity to discuss my viewpoint with those who wanted to implement these ideas within their organizations. As you will no doubt by now have guessed, as a result of all these contacts, my system produced a great deal of oxytocin which made me feel good. Many thanks to all of you.
P.S. It would be highly appreciated if you would let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) which topics or questions in the area of behavior, brain or safety management are of particular interest. I will then investigate that area and look into addressing the topic in an innovative way with a subsequent post.
About the Author
Juni Daalmans is author of Human Behavior in Hazardous Situations and works for the Daalmans Organizational Development Office. Save up to 30% on your very own copy of Juni’s book. Just enter “STC215” at checkout.
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