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ASU research proves link between peer pressure, immoral behavior

So-called bonding hormone plays role in engaging in immoral behavior.
May 12, 2017

Study from post-doctoral researcher Goekhan Aydogan finds that oxytocin enhances conformity

Hope you were nice to your mom on Mother’s Day, because it turns out she was right all along: Hanging out with the wrong crowd can lead you to make bad decisions, and for the first time an ASU researcher has proved it and provided a theory to explain why.

A new study from post-doctoral researcher Goekhan Aydogan published in Psychological Science, found that conformity is enhanced by oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone, and that the enhancement has a detrimental effect on honesty and moral values in a competitive environment.

Aydogan’s study builds on previous research, which also found that oxytocin increased conformity. He took a step further by proving that it leads to an increase in immoral behavior.

“This is the first study to show that peer pressure has a detrimental effect on moral values,” he explained.

Oxytocin is released into the brain and the bloodstream as a result of various social stimuli, such as a baby crying or a friendly face, and it has a variety of effects, not all of which are known or understood.

In women who have just given birth, it is believed oxytocin is released to enhance bonding between her and the baby, prompting some to refer to it as the “cuddle” hormone, or the “love” hormone.

But that doesn’t paint the whole picture, Aydogan points out, given its connection to conforming behavior.

“You can think of oxytocin like a mechanism that bonds group members together,” he said.

With that in mind, Aydogan and his team designed an experiment in which 60 participants were given a dose of oxytocin via nasal spray, and 60 participants were given a placebo via nasal spray. They were then asked to privately flip a coin and report whether it landed on heads or tails — heads resulted in a monetary reward.

Because the participants were the only ones who saw the result of the coin flip, they could lie without detection in order to receive the monetary reward. By comparing the reported outcomes of all the participants with their statistical chance implied by a fair coin, researchers were able to assess honesty on an aggregate level. However, researchers did not find a significant difference in lying about the results between the participants who had received oxytocin and the participants who had received a placebo.

Participants then performed the coin-tossing task again, this time with the opportunity to receive a greater monetary reward if they performed better than a competitor. In this case, researchers found that participants who had received oxytocin lied more about the coin flip results than those who had not.

Aydogan provides athletes as real-world examples. Despite the serious consequences, many cheat by doping because they believe that close peers and rivals do, too.

If, as Aydogan presumes, athletes release oxytocin — the group bonding hormone — as a result of interacting with those peers in a competitive environment, they will become more likely to engage in conforming behavior, even if it would otherwise be considered immoral.

“If you assume everyone else is using performance enhancing drugs, then you … might perceive this as not immoral anymore because everyone else is doing it,” Aydogan said. “So a kind of new norm is created where everyone is using performance enhancing drugs.”

The results of the study have implications for policymakers and those in position of power, Aydogan said.

“It’s extremely important to communicate that if you observe fraudulent behavior — like doping or tax evasion — that it is not common practice,” he said.

But it’s also important to prevent the situation in the first place: “At the same time, what you want to do is appeal to the moral code of people. Appeal to their personal responsibility. Like in elementary school, if someone jumps out of window, would you jump as well? This is basically the idea: Don’t do it just because everyone does it.”

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24 Sun Devils qualify for President’s Volunteer Service Award

24 ASU students honored by White House for community service. #SunDevilsServe
May 15, 2017

ASU students have given back to their community in a major way throughout the past year

Two dozen Sun Devil students have qualified for the President’s Volunteer Service Award in recognition of their hard work done both in the Valley of the Sun and beyond. The award was established by George W. Bush in 2002 as a way to honor volunteers who give back hundreds of hours each year to their community.

For their efforts, the representatives from Arizona State University received an official lapel pin, a personalized certificate of achievement and a note of congratulations from the President of the United States of America.

“This award is an outstanding way to highlight our students,” said Deb Ruiz, director of University Service-Learning. “They impact our local communities in such a positive and mutually beneficial way.”  

“This is just the cherry on top for me,” said junior Ryan Clark, who completed 234.5 hours of work. “I love what I do and will continue this relationship for years to come. It’s nice to be able to bring something home like this at the end of it all.”

Wanting to give back in a way that was meaningful to him, the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences student had a fairly unique service project — helping care for sick, injured and displaced owls in Arizona.

“I surrendered my Friday nights to a raptor refuge and rehabilitation center in Cave Creek called Wild at Heart,” Clark said.

Clark is just one example of hundreds of Sun Devils who give back to their community. Throughout the university, 830 students participated in community engagement programs a year ago for a total of 1,261,648 hours.

Thanks to ASU's service-learning courses, offered through the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, students can earn three credits and receive an in-depth study of civic engagement while solving community issues through service. They also attend a weekly class and complete assignments examining the effects of social injustices.

"Students (in these classes) select one of 160 community organizations, high needs schools or social services agencies to complete between 70-100 hours of service at,” Ruiz said. “We encourage all of our students to apply for the President’s Volunteer Service Awards for the high levels of community service that they complete, as well as applying for the awards as a group. We feel it is extremely important for all college students to gain experience that encourages community involvement, advances good citizenship skills and make a difference in the community.”

Ruiz hopes that the combination of the award and ASU’s service-learning classes will help foster even more community service from Sun Devils in the future.

“They are able to implement their classroom learning in a way that creates positive social change throughout the community,” Ruiz said. “Not only does the award highlight the students’ completion of important work, but it can encourage other students to participate as well.”

Top photo: Front row, left to right: Nicole Schott, Jasmine Smalls, Alexandra Magnall, Haley Lunski, Jennifer Lee. Back row, left to right: Lissa Leibson, Madeline Wells, Claudia LaGarde, Erica Schwartzmann, Sara Lanzel.