A nasal spray can make men more in tune with other people’s feelings, say a team of German and UK researchers.
They found that inhaling the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin made men just as empathetic as women.
The study in 48 volunteers also showed that the spray boosted the ability to learn from positive feedback.
Writing in the Journal of Neuroscience, the researchers said the spray may be useful for boosting behaviour therapy in conditions such as schizophrenia.
Oxytocin is a naturally produced hormone, most well-known for triggering labour pains and promoting bonding between mother and baby.
But it has also been shown to play a role in social relations, sex and trust.
Study leader Professor Keith Kendrick, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, said by giving the hormone nasally, it quickly reaches the brain.
In the first part of the study, half the men received a nose spray containing oxytocin (not to be confused with oxycontin) and half were given a dummy spray.
They were then shown photos of emotionally charged situations including a crying child, a girl hugging her cat, and a grieving man, and were asked questions about the depth of feeling they had towards the subjects.
Those who had the hormone spray had markedly higher levels of empathy – of a similar magnitude to those only usually seen in women who are naturally more sensitive to the feelings of others.
Neither group were able to accurately guess whether they had received the oxytocin or the dummy spray.
In a second experiment, the researchers measured “socially motivated learning” where the volunteers were asked to do a difficult observation test and were shown an approving face if they got the answer right and an unhappy face if they got it wrong.
In these types of experiments, people generally learn faster if they get positive feedback but those who had taken the oxytocin spray responded even better to facial feedback than those in the placebo group.
Professor Kendrick said the oxytocin spray may prove to be useful in people with conditions associated with reduced social approachability and social withdrawal, such as schizophrenia.
And other researchers are already looking at its potential use in autism.
“The bottom line is it improved the ability of people to learn when they had positive feedback and that is pretty important because this might help improve the effectiveness of behavioural therapy or even be useful in people with learning difficulties.”
Professor Gareth Leng from Edinburgh University said the research used some cleverly-designed tests.
He added there has been a lot of interest recently on oxytocin and social behaviour.
“This study is the latest of several that suggest that intranasal oxytocin seems to ‘sensitise’ people to become more aware of social cues from other individuals – and more likely to be sympathetic to them.”