Chapter 7

The Biology of Care and Conflict in Groups

By Zara Houshmand

Carsten de Dreu

The relational ideal of ubuntu is rooted in our nature as social animals, living within groups as families and communities. Carsten de Dreu is a behavioral scientist who studies the neurobiology that influences how we cooperate with and care for those we are close to. These same neurobiological mechanisms have a dark side that can lead to aggressive competition and violent conflict with outsiders, which arises defensively in response to the fear of exploitation.

Evolution has favored our ability to cooperate within groups. Trade, culture, technological advances, and artistic expression all depend on complex cooperation. We learn how to live within groups by observing the behavior of others. We see the benefits that arise from cooperation, and we learn to care and feel empathy for members of our family and community. We also learn from those around us to compete against those we perceive as outsiders. To some extent, we can be aware of our motivation when we engage with others, but we are also influenced unconsciously by biology.

The brain produces oxytocin, a chemical that plays a vital role in cooperation and caring, but also in competition. Animal research has revealed oxytocin’s essential role in pair bonding, reproduction, and caring for offspring. Likewise in humans, the amount of oxytocin that occurs naturally in saliva increases when people in warm and trusting relationships are together. It creates the bonds that are at the foundation of the family, the most basic of all groups.

Studies have shown that oxytocin promotes care and cooperation within groups but not with outsiders. It also promotes defending one’s own group against outside rivals, even aggressively, but not the aggressive exploitation of other groups where the motivation is greed rather than fear. Researchers administered a dose of oxytocin, or a placebo, to participants via a nasal spray. They then observed their decisions in ethical dilemmas that involved sacrificing one person—identified by a familiar name or a foreign name—to save several unnamed others. Oxytocin increased the tendency to sacrifice the foreigner.

Another study observed the effect of oxytocin in an economic game that created opportunities to invest in one’s own group or punish another group. Results showed that oxytocin increased the likelihood of supporting one’s own group, and had no effect on the tendency to punish the out-group. In an economic game that measured willingness to compete against a rival group, oxytocin made no difference unless the rivals were perceived as a threat. When they appeared to threaten benefits to one’s own group, then oxytocin increased the motivation to compete against them.

A recent study of chimpanzees, who share a substantial amount of biology with humans, showed elevated amounts of oxytocin in the urine of young males when they went on border patrols at the edge of their territory and clashed with patrols from other tribes. The threat of violence creates a need for stronger cooperation within the group, to shield and defend each other.

Oxytocin is thus an important part of what has made us into social animals. Bonding with our own group distances us from others and makes us willing to be aggressive to outsiders. That aggression in turn causes the other group to bond more tightly and react aggressively.

The question is, how can we use this biological mechanism—which so beautifully supports caring and cooperation—to engage with other groups without competition, envy, and conflict? How do we expand the circle of our group to include the other?


The conversation following Carsten de Dreu’s presentation continued to delve into the dynamics of conflict between in-group and out-groups. Michael Eze asked whether the role of oxytocin implied a biological determinism: Is racism a natural instinct?

De Dreu made the very clear distinction that racism is not natural; serving your own group is natural. The boundaries that define group identity are not fixed—some may last for a lifetime, others for mere hours. Eze noted that we hold simultaneous membership in multiple in-groups, often with tensions between our various identities, which also points to their fluid nature. Lily Mafela related this membership in multiple overlapping groups to current problems with nation-building in Africa, and how threats of scarcity spark reversion to tribal identities. De Dreu insisted that though the impulse to defend one’s own group is natural, especially when threatened by others, the response need not be aggression. Negotiation, dialogue, and many other options can defuse the sense of threat and lead to peaceful coexistence. The lab experiments he described constrained the available options, but a broader solution space is possible under normal circumstances.

Thupten Jinpa asked what is known about the mechanisms of how groups form. We’ve learned that group formation depends on three principles, De Dreu explained: similarity, proximity, and common fate. Biologically, we have evolved to relate to small groups on which we rely for our entire lifetime. To experience all of humanity as one group—the solution Buddhism proposes—we would need to overcome the absence of those three conditions. Uri Hasson observed that climate change threatens all of us with a common fate, globalization has created a sense of proximity through ease of communication, and our similarity consists in our shared humanity as well as our global culture. Thupten Jinpa described the Buddhist practice designed to cultivate compassion for an expanding circle, beginning with our loved ones and extending to our enemies and finally to all humanity.

Mhondoro Mandaza offered that service and working together collaboratively in groups towards a shared goal can foster the same conditions for peaceful coexistence. The contributions of different groups are like the leaves, branches, bark and roots of a great tree. In the same vein, Eze suggested that aspects of ubuntu like altruism and compassion could be framed as humanity’s common fate.

A brief exchange provided an important reminder of the limits of the current science. Rebecca Shansky asked whether the naturally occurring variation of individuals’ oxytocin levels could serve to predict their behavior in the experimental situations that de Dreu had described. Oxytocin is just one factor we have isolated, he responded. In the reality of human responses to situations in the environment, there are many other complex factors in play and the information is too noisy to predict behavior based on oxytocin levels. Clearly, more research is needed to fully understand how these systems influence people’s actions in the real world.

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