R. Becket Ebitz, Karli K. Watson, and Michael L. Platt
PNAS July 9, 2013 vol. 110 no. 28 11630-11635
Exogenous application of the neuromodulatory hormone oxytocin (OT) promotes prosocial behavior and can improve social function. It is unclear, however, whether OT promotes prosocial behavior per se, or whether it facilitates social interaction by reducing a state of vigilance toward potential social threats. To disambiguate these two possibilities, we exogenously delivered OT to male rhesus macaques, which have a characteristic pattern of species-typical social vigilance, and examined their performance in three social attention tasks. We first determined that, in the absence of competing task demands or goals, OT increased attention to faces and eyes, as in humans. By contrast, OT reduced species typical social vigilance for unfamiliar, dominant, and emotional faces in two additional tasks. OT eliminated the emergence of a typical state of vigilance when dominant face images were available during a social image choice task. Moreover, OT improved performance on a reward-guided saccade task, despite salient social distractors: OT reduced the interference of unfamiliar faces, particularly emotional ones, when these faces were task irrelevant. Together, these results demonstrate that OT suppresses vigilance toward potential social threats in the rhesus macaque. We hypothesize that a basic role for OT in regulating social vigilance may have facilitated the evolution of prosocial behaviors in humans.