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Oxytocin may help men stay faithful claims new study

Lia Grainger
Shine On
November 15, 2012

What keeps a man faithful?

It's a loaded question that so reeks of patriarchal double standards we'd almost rather not go there, but since today our good friend Science seems to have come up with at least part of the answer, it seems best to go ahead and just answer the question.

A new study published Tuesday in the Journal of Neuroscience has revealed that the hormone oxytocin may play a role in maintaining monogamous relationships, reports the Los Angeles Times.

How? Well this is one of those rare cases where the design of the experiment is nearly as interesting as the finding, so listen up.

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A team of researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany rounded up 57 heterosexual men, about half of whom were single and half of whom were in monogamous relationships. They gave some of the men a nasal spray of oxytocin and the others a placebo, and then had an attractive female researcher who they had never met walk towards them. They were instructed to tell the woman to stop walking when there was a socially "ideal" distance between them.

Predictably, the single guys let the woman get nice and close — about 20 to 24 inches away. This was true whether they received the oxytocin spray or not. Disappointingly, the men in relationships who received the placebo spray also let the woman get about 20 to 24 inches away.

It was only the men in relationships who received the oxytocin that opted to put a greater distance — 28 to 30 inches — between themselves and the attractive woman.

So what does this mean?

First, a little background on oxytocin. Often referred to as the "love hormone" that creates a bond between two people, it plays a role in a wide range of actions and interactions, including childbirth, orgasm, early romance and breastfeeding.

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This study reveals that the hormone's effects may be more subtle and complex then previously believed. When they designed this experiment, the researchers were anticipating that the hormone would draw men closer to women, and were surprised when the opposite occurred.

"One possibility ... is that the men are MORE attracted to the unfamiliar woman and that triggers a defensive move," says Ronald de Sousa.

A professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto who focuses on biology, de Sousa points out that oxytocin is known to increase trust, usually directed at the person one is directly confronted with.

"Maybe in this case the sight of the unfamiliar woman acts as a reminder of the relationship with the partner — she's nice but my lover is nicer," says de Sousa. "For that matter, maybe I want her to step back so I can get a better look."

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Paul Zak is the founding director of Claremont Graduate University's Center for Neuroeconomics Studies. He spoke with the Los Angeles Times about the study, and came to a conclusion the ladies may find just a tad more reassuring.

"The finding that one's relationship status affects how oxytocin affects the brain provides some evidence that our brains evolved to form long-term romantic relationships," Zak tells the Times. "Hugh Hefner is the exception, not the role model for men."

All of this new information very interesting, but how can it be exploited to keep stereotypically wandering men from straying, wonders the stereotypical female?

"I can't say I see this as being of any practical use," admits de Sousa. "What are you going to do, follow your man around with an oxytocin spray at the ready in case he meets anyone attractive?"

Maybe.

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