Does Oxytocin Increase Empathy?

Empathy is an emotion that is directly related to the bonds that were formed in childhood. “Children from secure and loving backgrounds develop enhanced motivation and competencies for empathy and compassion for self and others, in comparison with children from insecure backgrounds,” said Helen Rockliff of the Henry Wellcome Laboratories for Integrative Neuroscience and Endocrinology at the University of Bristol in the UK, and lead author of a recent study. “Feeling that one is the recipient of care and support from others creates a feeling of safeness and soothing linked to well-being, whereas feeling uncared for is linked to mental and physical health problems.” She added, “The degree to which people feel secure and wanted in their current relationships is positively associated with positive affect and negatively associated with cyclothymic and dysthymic temperament in both student and bipolar disorder groups.”

Oxytocin, a naturally occurring neuropeptide, has been proven to increase compassion, empathy and other affiliative emotional responses. “It also increases attentional bias for rewarding social cues and has been found to enhance the attenuation of stress responses by social support,” said Rockliff. Therapeutic trends have increased the practice of compassion based therapies, such as Compassion Focused Imagery (CFI), and clinicians have suggested that oxytocin could enhance the treatment experience for people who struggle with empathy. For her study, Rockliff evaluated 44 participants for levels of self-criticism, compassion and attachment. Half of the participants were given oxytocin, while the other half received a placebo. After two CFI sessions, the participants were assessed again. Rockliff found that “oxytocin did significantly enhance the ease of imagining receiving compassion from another person/being and receiving various compassionate qualities for the self.” But she noted, “Individuals who are self-critical, insecurely attached, and lack a sense of social safeness can find various elements of compassion difficult, especially with oxytocin.” She added that although these findings support the use of oxytocin to improve empathic motivation and compassion imagery in therapy, it may not be helpful for all clients. Rockliff said, “This research has highlighted that, although oxytocin enhances the CFI experience, there are important individual differences in responses to both oxytocin and CFI.”

Reference:
Rockliff, Helen, Anke Karl, Kristen McEwan, Jean Gilbert, Marcela Matos, and Paul Gilbert. “Effects of Intranasal Oxytocin on ‘compassion Focused Imagery'” Emotion 11.6 (2011): 1388-396. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kaylaroll

    Kaylaroll

    December 22nd, 2011 at 5:56 AM

    Seems a little strange that someone would have to be given something to feel empathy for others. I would have hoped that this would be something that any decent and caring person would automatically feel.

  • John

    John

    September 24th, 2012 at 9:07 AM

    Proof again that people dont have empathy for people that dont have empathy

  • M. G. Frederic

    M. G. Frederic

    December 22nd, 2011 at 3:17 PM

    @Kaylaroll, in some cases some people have this area hindered due to their environmental history, accident or maybe genetic issues.

    Just because they aren’t able to, doesn’t mean that they probably wouldn’t want to.

    @GoodTherapy, great post!

  • lara

    lara

    December 24th, 2011 at 8:20 AM

    so love hormone promotes love and empathy?i’m not surprised!

  • Pauline

    Pauline

    December 26th, 2011 at 12:14 PM

    This needs to be bottled and sold to the masses!

  • Genius

    Genius

    September 3rd, 2012 at 5:11 PM

    Oxytocin is evil it is responsible for promoting feelings of abandonment not love. The motivation it creates is inferiority. It has been proven to create ethnocentrism in facial recognition amongst lab testing. Its attention bias causes one to not infer the difference between an object and an action hindering the process difference in cause/effect or means justifies the end. Social empathy it enhances the instinct to form packs and gangs join into groupthinks and harass others whom don’t conform to sameness instinct.

  • Hilary Price

    Hilary Price

    September 4th, 2012 at 2:04 AM

    Biodynamic body psychotherapy can help regulate levels of oxytocin in the body through the use of specialised forms of massage. In contrast to the process descibed in this article, the body generates its own oxytocin in response to appropriate levels of nurturing contact with another human being, leading to an authentic inner sense of security and wellbeing, and reducing the drive to form co-dependant relationships or engage in substance abuse.

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