For years, scientists, psychologists and medical professionals have lauded oxytocin as a pathway to expression, empathy and bonding. That's led businesspeople in virtually all industries to pay attention, the thought being that trust will be easier to develop between individuals or teams when oxytocin is flowing. But if Stanford professor and neuroendrocrinologist Robert Sapolsky is right, we all might have missed an important caveat to the way oxytocin really works.

The big problem

The idea that oxytocin encourages closeness is not incorrect. But in this video from Big Think, Sapolsky argues that oxytocin really is effective at doing this with people we already consider to be an insider to our group. It makes us more aggressive and less cooperative when we don't have the perception that the other person or group is like us. Put another way, it makes you want to stick with people you relate to, thereby fostering favoritism and making group distinctions worse.

Others can manipulate you toward the worst

Sapolsky explains that the biggest issue with oxytocin, given its ability to worsen us-them divides, is that we constantly redefine who is an insider. For example, if we are white, we might see other white individuals as being part of our larger group. But if another white individual in our group suddenly starts talking trash about the latest Netflix show we're binge watching, we might redraw our lines and stop treating that person like an insider. To this end, Sapolsky cautions that others also can manipulate us to think that people who are similar to us really aren't.

Or they can manipulate us to our best

But what if you turn that around? What if you purposely tried to manipulate people into seeing their similarities instead? For instance, you might have Asians, Mexicans, African Americans and whites on your team. But if you know all of them like that Netflix show from above, you could use that to break the ice or make a fun point everybody's going to get. Then, once people see they're not so different, you can use strategies like giving gifts, making good eye contact or offering strong words of encouragement to really get the oxytocin pumping and solidify the sense of community.

What it means for your icebreakers and team building

Sapolsky's assertions mean that certain traditional approaches to facilitating group cohesion--e.g., that classic-but-crazy exercise where you catch somebody who's falling--might be a little backwards. They might force you to open up or depend on someone else for a moment, but they don't necessarily show you how you are like the others in the room. They thus might not be as effective at facilitating trust as you'd like. Instead, use exercises such as

  • Having everyone find five things in common (e.g., have kids, took the subway)
  • Playing "Where Do You Stand" (everyone stands on an imaginary line between two extreme viewpoints)
  • Finding out who has the same smartphone app as you (no Facebook, Twitter or general browsers)
  • Having everyone take pictures of the same items on a scavenger hunt or asking who has specific types of pictures on their phone (e.g., a selfie, food, something they were going to buy in the store)
  • Creating a ball of strings tied together at a central point and having everyone work together to untangle it

Importantly, these exercises don't force anybody to reveal information that's too personal, which can be awkward. Rather, they focus more on using basic information or activity to prove to each other that we can fit in the same bucket or category as someone else. We can work on further improving cohesiveness through oxytocin-boosting strategies after we positively redraw social lines.