Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

roots

(Photo: siambizkit/Shutterstock)

The Biological Roots of Domestic Violence

• February 21, 2014 • 2:00 AM

(Photo: siambizkit/Shutterstock)

Ironically, researchers find the “cuddle hormone” apparently plays a role in sparking violent behavior toward one’s romantic partner.

Remember oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone”? Over the past few years, a series of well-publicized studies have suggested its activation inspires increased trust, altruism, and empathy.

But let’s hold off on any plans to inject it into tap water. Newly published research suggests the hormone, commonly associated with cuddling, may also inspire domestic violence.

“Far from being a panacea for all social ills,” writes a research team led by University of Kentucky psychologist C. Nathan DeWall, “oxytocin may have diversified effects, increasing the likelihood that people who are inclined toward physical aggression will inflict harm on their romantic partners.”

This raises the intriguing possibility that domestic violence could be decreased if a way could be found to suppress oxytocin in people who are predisposed to violence.

The research, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, provides some intriguing clues into the biological basis of the propensity for interpersonal violence.

DeWall and his colleagues note that oxytocin has been linked to “relationship maintenance.” In its benign form, that means inspiring behaviors that cement emotional closeness.

But they add that, for some people, preserving a romantic relationship involves physical and emotional abuse—actions aimed at intimidating one’s partner and preventing him or her from leaving. It turns out oxytocin can increase one’s inclination to engage in that kind of behavior as well.

Their study featured 93 undergraduates (47 men and 46 women). By random selection, each inhaled either 24 international units of oxytocin, or a similar amount of placebo. For the next 45 minutes, all participants performed a series of tasks, two of which (including giving a speech before an unsupportive audience) were designed to “increase stressful provocation.”

Their underlying aggressive tendencies were measured by having the students respond to two statements: “Given enough provocation right now, I might hit another person” and “If I had to resort to violence to protect my rights, I would right now.” They rated each on a one-to-seven scale (“extremely uncharacteristic of me” to “extremely characteristic of me.”)

They then reported, on a one-to-five scale, how likely they would be to engage in specific violent acts toward their current romantic partner (or their most recent partner if they were not in a relationship). These included “twist my partner’s arm or hair,” “push or shove my partner,” and “slap my partner.”

The results: Oxytocin increased participants’ inclination to engage in violence, but only among those “predisposed toward physical aggression.” It had no effect on those who lacked that underlying bent.

So for most people, a boost of oxytocin “signals a need to keep their partners close.” But for some, that signal inspires “behaviors designed to dominate their partners so that they do not flee the relationship.”

“Because physical aggression is a key part of their interpersonal repertoire,” the researchers write, “oxytocin may increase such behaviors.”

This raises the intriguing possibility that domestic violence could be decreased if a way could be found to suppress oxytocin in people who are predisposed to violence. It also provides new evidence that the initial view of the hormone as a uniformly positive force is way off-base.

Yes, oxytocin does inspire bonding. But not all bonds, and not all ways of preserving them, are healthy.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.


September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.