KSJ Tracker November 16, 2012

Could a whiff of oxytocin have saved Petraeus? Ugh.


This week, researchers in Germany and China reported in The Journal of Neuroscience "the first evidence" that a sniff of oxytocin led men in monogamous relationships to keep a greater distance from an attractive woman during a first encounter, compared to single men. The researchers conclude from this that oxytocin "may help to promote fidelity within monogamous human relationships."

I have a problem with this even before I begin to look at the coverage. We could each draw up a list of things that we think could encourage or discourage a man from having an extramarital affair. (I'm keeping my list to myself.) How many of us would include on that list the distance at which a man stands from an attractive female? Stand back, and you won't be tempted to have an affair! If only.

Oh, and one other point. How much farther away did the men in relationships stay from the attractive researcher? A few feet, perhaps? Or halfway across the room? Wrong, and wrong. The men in monogamous relationships stood 4-6 inches farther away from the attractive female. The researchers, in their abstract, call this "a much greater distance."

I don't.

Now let's see how the press handled this. Here's the lede in The Los Angeles Times, by Melissa Healy:

If retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus had gotten an occasional dose of supplemental oxytocin, a brain chemical known to promote trust and bonding, he might still be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, new research suggests.

Oh, the pathos! The heartbreaking tragedy! A sniff of oxy would have saved the career of Petraeus, our God of War. I get the gag. I get the informality. I get the idea of tying the study to the news. The only problem is, the study doesn't suggest anything of the kind. Maybe avoiding time alone with an attractive biographer would have helped, too. Where they stood would not seem to be the key issue.

And a few others:

Alexa Mae Asperin of ABC News put a reasonable lede on her story, writing that oxytocin "may help encourage fidelity in men who are in committed relationships," which is what the researchers wrote. But she didn't make any calls; she attributes quotes to a press release.

Lindsay Abrams at The Atlantic writes a lede artfully and evocatively spelling out what the researchers thought might happen, but which did not happen. My guess is that casual readers might read that, turn the page, and conclude that oxytocin encourages proximity, not the other way around.

Maia Szalavitz at Time starts with a question, not an assertion: "Is the love hormone the antidote to fidelity? Researchers are doing their best to find out." That's already more skeptical than much of the other coverage, but then she follows immediately with this:

Being faithful to a significant other clearly involves a lot more than a hormone. There’s the biology and chemistry that attracts you to your partner, the genes that make it more or less likely that you might take risks in a relationship, your own values about fidelity and marriage, your family’s values about same…you get the picture.

Yes. Finally, we get a fair assessment of what's going on here.

Michelle Castillo of CBS News likewise backs into the story with a question: Can a naturally produced hormone stop men from cheating?" she begins.

The oxytocin study makes for a good story. It's amusing and potentially important. But too many writers took too many liberties. We can't blame the press release from the Society for Neuroscience, which wisely quoted the abstract closely. 

So, have a good time with stories like this. But stick to the facts. And be home by 10.

Update: For a takedown of oxytocin, read Ed Yong's piece last summer in Slate. The hype, he writes, is dumb and dangerous. (Thanks to Tabitha M. Powledge of On Science Blogs for the heads-up.)

-Paul Raeburn


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