Science Must Always Be Skeptical of Its Own Findings

Secular Meditation

One of the reasons that science is such a useful guide to reality is that, over time, the body of scientific knowledge updates as new information comes in. So, it turns out that one of the studies I reference in my book, Secular Meditation, has been falsified by the very people who originally produced it.

Failed Replication of Oxytocin Effects on Trust: The Envelope Task Case finds that a previous study, Oxytocin does not only increases trust when money is at stake, but also when confidential information is in the balance cannot be replicated.

In Secular Meditation, I refer to the falsified study in the context of loving-kindness meditation in this paragraph:

“Feeling love toward dangerous individuals may, in fact, be dangerous. Scientists find that feelings of love dampen activity in brain areas that make negative judgments about other people. Researchers in Belgium found that subjects who were given oxytocin in a nasal spray took fewer pains to secure a questionnaire containing confidential information about their sex lives compared to subjects who were given a nasal spray with no active ingredient. This was measured by having the subjects submit the questionnaire for computerized scanning either in a sealed or unsealed envelope. Leaving the envelope unsealed was interpreted as a measure of the subjects’ trust in the researchers’ promise not to peek at the information.[23]”

Mikolajczak et al attempted to replicate the envelope task to build a foundation for further studied. But their replication failed. One key difference is that the original study was single-blind, but the replication was double-blind, which means that in the first study the experimenters might have unconsciously primed those who received oxytocin to behave as they did.

In the new paper, the experimenters call into question not only their paper, but others finding a connection between oxytocin and trust, particularly those studies that rely on the administration of oxytocin through a nasal spray. They question whether oxytocin administered in this fashion really reaches the brain, and even if so, whether it influences behavior. Graduate student Gidi Nave casts doubt on the whole enterprise and twitter even has a hashtag, #schmoxytocin to collect the doubts.

As I interpret it, based on animal studies, there continues to be strong reasons to believe that oxytocin influences social bonding behavior in mammals, including humans. However, even if social animals bond with each other, I’m not sure that the word “trust” can be applied to them (there are cases of cooperation among species but they may be instinctual.

So trust really needs to be studied in humans, and perhaps infusion of oxytocin through the nose isn’t a tool that works so well. But on the other hand, if it doesn’t work, how come so many studies (not just the nonreplicated paper) seems to show that it does? Could it all come down to unconscious priming? I don’t know.

Clearly, the envelope task doesn’t work, but I’m skeptical that all this intranasal oxytocin research needs to be thrown out. Just as research sometimes gets overhyped, critiques of research may also get overhyped. A few years ago, there was a paper critiquing Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience. Some of those critiqued hit back with Correlations in Social Neuroscience Aren’t Voodoo. Another paper argues that the critique had some validity but was overstated. I’m not sure what the final state of play is with regard to this debate, but I believe that much though not all of the original findings are still considered valid.

Yesterday, I came across a book The Myth of Mirror Neurons. I jumped to the end and it seemed to undermine the title by conceding that there was indeed something to “mirror neurons” but they had been overhyped. And yet the title of the book contained its own kind of hype.

It should also be noted that there is a so-called replication crisis not just in oxytocin studies but all of psychological science, where only a reported one-third of studies replicate. My guess is that when the dust settles, there will still be some reasons to believe that social bonding and trust go together, and endogenous oxytocin and related brain hormones have something to do with it.

My overall point in the paragraph still stands, based on common sense if nothing else. Whether mediated by oxytocin or not, when we like people, when we bond with people, we becomes biased toward them and give them the benefit of the doubt. In loving-kindness meditation, we cultivate warm feelings toward an expanding circle of beings, eventually extending our circle of concern even toward people who may be harmful. There is evidence that loving-kindness meditation actually changes feelings and behavior. We should be cautious, however, that we don’t allow this warmth to cause us to trust harmful people and overlook the damage they may cause to ourselves or others. Our compassion should not blind us but rather, go hand and hand with reason.

[23] Andreas Bartels, and Semir Zeki, “The Neural Correlates of Maternal and Romantic Love,” Neuroimage 21, no. 3 (2004): 1155–66; Peter Kirsch, Christine Esslinger, Qiang Chen, Daniela Mier, Stefanie Lis, Sarina Siddhanti, Harald Gruppe, Venkata S. Mattay, Bernd Gallhofer, and Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, “Oxytocin Modulates Neural Circuitry for Social Cognition and Fear in Humans,” Journal of Neuroscience 25, no. 49 (2005): 11489–93; Matthias Gamer, Bartosz Zurowski, and Christian Büchel, “Different Amygdala Subregions Mediate Valence-Related and Attentional Effects of Oxytocin in Humans,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 20 (2010): 9400–9405; Moïra Mikolajczak, Nicolas Pinon, Anthony Lane, Philippe de Timary, and Olivier Luminet, “Oxytocin Not Only Increases Trust When Money Is at Stake, but Also When Confidential Information Is in the Balance,” Biological Psychology 85, no. 1 (2010): 182–84.

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