Scientists think oxytocin, the much-vaunted "cuddle hormone," can be used as a nasal spray to reduce shyness. But will a handy spritz really turn all shy caterpillars into social butterflies?
In the popular press, oxytocin often shows up for its role in sex (and slut-shaming — because of course if you have casual sex, your hormones will make you miserable). But according to Richard Alleyne the Telegraph, scientists at Israel's Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment and Columbia University think it may be able to improve some people's social lives. In their study of 27 men, those given an oxytocin nose spray performed better on a test of "empathic accuracy" — rating other people's feelings after watching them talk about emotional times in their lives — than those who got a placebo. Interestingly, though, the oxytocin only boosted the performance of men with low "social competency" — already-social dudes were unaffected. Study author Jennifer Bartz says, "While more research is required, these results highlight the potential oxytocin holds for treating social deficits in people with disorders marked by deficits in social functioning like autism."
A drug to improve empathy does seem like a potentially useful option for people with autism — but could oxytocin really "cure shyness," as the Telegraph's headline suggests? Could it, as Alleyne speculates, "help wallflowers overcome awkwardness in social situations?" Maybe, but let's recognize that shyness, awkwardness, and empathy problems are all different things. Some people may be shy or awkward because they have trouble reading others' emotions — and perhaps this is especially true for those with autism spectrum disorders. But I know from experience that it's possible to fuck up socially even if you can read other people just fine.
Maybe I'm deluded, but I think I'm good at knowing what other people are feeling. I'm never that person, for instance, who just doesn't understand why you're mad. I'm also — just to make the distinction clear — not actually shy. I like parties, I love talking to people, and I don't mind introducing myself to someone new. But I've been known to be pretty awkward on occasion — mostly because, as I've mentioned, I tend to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. It's not that I don't know how you're feeling — I probably do, and a few beats later I will probably even know the right thing to say about it. But on the spur of the moment, I might well blurt out something totally weird — or, because I'm increasingly aware of this tendency of mine, just clam up and say nothing at all. So while helping people with low empathic accuracy is a worthwhile goal, we should remember that there are lots of different social skills, and all but the most self-assured among us probably wish we were a little better at one or two. Maybe there should be a whole line of nose sprays.