Background: Humans have a strong social tendency to compare themselves with others. We tend to feel envious when we receive less valuable rewards and may rejoice when our payoffs are more advantageous. Envy and schadenfreude (gloating over the other's misfortune) are social emotions widely agreed to be a symptom of the human social tendency to compare one's payoffs with those of others. Given the important social components of envy and gloating, we speculated that oxytocin may have a modulating effect on the intensity of these emotions.
Methods: Fifty-six participants participated in this double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subject study. Following the administration of oxytocin or a placebo, participants played a game of chance with another (fake) participant who either won more money (envy manipulation), lost more money (schadenfreude manipulation), or won/lost equal amounts of money.
Results: In comparison with the placebo, oxytocin increased the envy ratings during unequal monetary gain conditions involving relative loss (when the participant gained less money than another player). Oxytocin also increased the ratings of gloating during relative gain conditions (when the participant gained more money than the other player). By contrast, oxytocin had no effect on the emotional ratings following equal monetary gains nor did it affect general mood ratings.
Conclusions: These results suggest that the oxytocinergic system is involved in modulating envy and gloating. Thus, contrary to the prevailing belief that this system is involved solely in positive prosocial behaviors, it probably plays a key role in a wider range of social emotion-related behaviors.