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Researchers at the University of Amsterdam (UvA)have uncovered a neurobiological cause of ethnocentrism and prejudices for the first time. Their experiments showed that oxytocin, a neuropeptide made in the brain that functions as a hormone and neurotransmitter, makes people view their own group as being superior.

Researchers at the University of Amsterdam (UvA)have uncovered a neurobiological cause of ethnocentrism and prejudices for the first time. Their experiments showed that oxytocin, a neuropeptide made in the brain that functions as a hormone and neurotransmitter, makes people view their own group as being superior. As a result, members of other groups are discriminated against. The findings of the researchers, published on 10 January 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, differ from the prevailing view that oxytocin makes people nicer and altruistic.

The relative preferential treatment for one's own group is caused because oxytocin, commonly referred to as the ‘cuddle hormone’, leads (members of) one's own group to be seen more positively, although judgment on (members of) other competing groups is not influenced by the hormone. This finding provides a neurobiological explanation for the fact that people develop prejudices and discriminate between their own and other groups.

The evolution of ethnocentrism

The UvA researchers, led by Prof. Carsten de Dreu, asked themselves whether oxytocin promotes a positive attitude towards others. An evolutionary perspective suggests that people are actually ethnocentric leading them to express their commitment to and appreciation of their own group to others. Indeed, such committed group members are probably reliable partners. This ultimately benefits the individual. The researchers reasoned that if this evolutionary perspective is correct, there should be neurobiological mechanisms that cause ethnocentrism. The discovery that oxytocin leads people to see their own group more positively whilst discriminating against members of other groups supports this theory.