The Amity/Enmity Complex: Science Finally Catching Up?

This is encouraging. According to an article at LiveScience, researchers are finally starting to notice a phenomenon that’s been blindingly obvious for the last 150 years; the Amity-Enmity Complex.   Apparently a team led by Carsten De Dreu at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands has discovered that oxycontin, the so-called “love hormone,” plays a role in regulating intergroup conflict as well.  The text of the article should have a familiar ring to it if you’ve been reading this blog.  For example,

De Dreu took special interest in parochial altruism, in which people self-sacrifice for the sake of their group or defensively hurt competing groups. He and his colleagues have now fingered oxytocin as a likely neurobiological mechanism that drives how humans regulate intergroup conflict.

Some animal studies had shown that oxytocin encourages protectionist behavior, but this marks the first study to illustrate a similar effect in humans. De Dreu and his colleagues had reasoned that this “dark side” of cooperation makes sense from an adaptive, evolutionary perspective of competing groups.

“We were interested in seeing where oxytocin’s ‘niceness’ breaks down,” De Dreu told LiveScience.

In three experiments involving competing three-person groups in a variation of the prisoner’s dilemma, De Dreu and his associates found that males given a whiff of oxycontin via nasal spray tended to act in the interests of their own group, and that they were affected similarly by oxycontin regardless of their natural tendencies to cooperate.  However, quoting from the article,

But the real twist came during the third experiment involving 79 males, who took either oxytocin or a placebo. Rather than having a certain amount of money to spend, the group decision-makers simply chose whether to cooperate or not cooperate with an outsider group.

That choice led to four possible outcomes, depending on what the outsider group also chose. The two groups received a moderate reward if they both cooperated and a lesser reward if they both chose to not cooperate. But if an outsider group chose to not cooperate, the in-group was better off also not cooperating. Cooperating with outsiders who had chosen not to cooperate led to the worst-case scenario.

Decision-makers under the influence of oxytocin acted protectively by not cooperating with an opposing group, as researchers had predicted. Such noncooperation in the third experiment was considered a preemptive strike or defensive aggression, because the group acted to protect itself against possible harm from the outsiders.

The third experiment also showed that oxytocin encouraged defensive aggression against outsider groups when there was greater fear of such groups, De Dreu explained. Researchers manipulated the fear factor by increasing the financial hurt that outsiders could inflict upon a group.

The article continues,

…the results may have relevance to understanding male-dominated conflicts, ranging from prehistoric hunter-gatherer skirmishes to (modern warfare).

Gee, ya think?  In fact, the existence of the Complex is as obvious as the influence of innate predispositions hard-wired in the brain on human moral behavior in general.  It is also just as uncomfortable a truth to secular and religious ideologues who prefer a version of morality with more legitimacy than an evolved behavioral trait.  As a result, psychologists and a host of other researchers who should know better have managed to studiously ignore its existence for many years.  They were finally forced to begin accepting fundamental truths about the real nature of morality by a rapid series of recent revelations about the brain emanating from neuroscience and related disciplines.  It was only a matter of time before the other shoe would drop. 

One hopes many other researchers will join De Dreu in studying the human behavioral traits associated with hostility and agression directed at “out-groups.”  No aspect of our nature has played a more decisive role in our history, and if we continue to ignore it, we will do so at an ever increasing risk.  Once we finally recognize the existence of these phenomena, perhaps we will also realize that the highly dubious value of attempts to promote the welfare of mankind by finding a “higher morality.”

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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