Evidence suggests that intranasal oxytocin enhances the perception of emotion in facial expressions during standard emotion identification tasks. However, it is not clear whether this effect is desirable in people who do not show deficits in emotion perception. That is, a heightened perception of emotion in faces could lead to "oversensitivity" to the emotions of others in nonclinical participants. The goal of this study was to assess the effects of intranasal oxytocin on emotion perception using ecologically valid social and nonsocial visual tasks. Eighty-two participants (42 women) self-administered a 24 IU dose of intranasal oxytocin or a placebo in a double-blind, randomized experiment and then completed the perceiving and understanding emotion components of the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test. In this test, emotion identification accuracy is based on agreement with a normative sample. As expected, participants administered intranasal oxytocin rated emotion in facial stimuli as expressing greater emotional intensity than those given a placebo. Consequently, accurate identification of emotion in faces, based on agreement with a normative sample, was impaired in the oxytocin group relative to placebo. No such effect was observed for tests using nonsocial stimuli. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that intranasal oxytocin enhances the salience of social stimuli in the environment, but not nonsocial stimuli. The present findings support a growing literature showing that the effects of intranasal oxytocin on social cognition can be negative under certain circumstances, in this case promoting "oversensitivity" to emotion in faces in healthy people.
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