A human tendency to anthropomorphize is enhanced by oxytocin

Dirk Scheele, Christine Schwering, Jed T. Elison, Robert Spunt, Wolfgang Maier, René Hurlemann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


In the course of human evolution, the brain has evolved into a highly sensitive detector of social signals. As a consequence of this socially driven adaptation, humans display a tendency to anthropomorphize, that is they attribute social meaning to non-social agents. The evolutionarily highly conserved hypothalamic peptide oxytocin (OXT) has been identified as a key factor attaching salience to socially relevant cues, but whether it contributes to spontaneous anthropomorphism is still elusive. In the present study involving 60 healthy female participants, we measured salivary OXT concentrations and explored the effect of a single intranasal dose of synthetic OXT (24 IU) or placebo (PLC) on anthropomorphic tendencies during participants[U+05F3] verbal descriptions of short video clips depicting socially and non-socially moving geometric shapes. Our results show that endogenous OXT concentrations at baseline positively correlated with the attribution of animacy to social stimuli. While intranasal OXT had no modulatory effect on arousal ratings and did not make the participants more talkative, the treatment boosted anthropomorphic descriptions specifically for social stimuli. In conclusion, we here provide first evidence indicating that spontaneous anthropomorphism in women is facilitated by oxytocin, thereby enabling a context-specific upregulation of the propensity to anthropomorphize environmental cues.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1817-1823
Number of pages7
JournalEuropean Neuropsychopharmacology
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2015

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
R.H. was supported by a Starting Independent Researcher Grant (‘NEMO – Neuromodulation of Emotion’) jointly provided by the Ministry of Innovation, Science, Research & Technology of the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia (MIWFT) and the University of Bonn .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Elsevier B.V. and ECNP.


  • Agency
  • Anthropomorphism
  • Oxytocin
  • Social cognition


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