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Intranasal Oxytocin Administration Reduces Bystanders’ Acceptance of Online Celebrity Bashing

  • Konrad RudnickiEmail author
  • Gaelle Ouvrein
  • Charlotte De Backer
  • Vandebosch Heidi
Original Article

Abstract

Online celebrity bashing refers to a specific subform of online aggression in which celebrities are the targets of derogatory messages. Recent research focusing on the underlying explanations of why some bystanders turn into perpetrators of celebrity bashing suggests that human capacity for empathy may regulate the involvement in this practice. Bystanders with higher empathy are thought to show more disapproval towards online celebrity bashing, which makes them less likely to join in this practice. However, little is known about the processes of how empathy steers bystanders’ bashing attitudes and behavior. In this study, we examine whether the oxytocinergic system, which forms the neurophysiological foundation of empathy, influences the bystanders’ acceptance of online celebrity bashing. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment, we tested the effects of intranasal oxytocin administration on acceptance of celebrity bashing in men. Sixty participants rated neutral or derogatory comments presented as “tweets.” Electrodermal activity and electrocardiogram of the participants were recorded to control for the stress levels. The results showed that oxytocin administration reduced the acceptance of celebrity bashing. Celebrity bashing was unrelated to stress levels. In natural circumstances oxytocin levels are dependent on the presence and quality of one’s social relationships. As a result, we discuss the importance of facilitating a network of social support in programs addressing the problem of online aggression.

Keywords

Celebrity bashing Cyberbullying Empathy Oxytocin Online aggression 

Introduction

Given the vast reach of celebrity news including both positive and negative opinions (De Backer et al. 2007), many people are exposed to derogatory messages targeted at celebrities. This phenomenon is often referred to as “online celebrity bashing” (Pyżalski 2012; Johansson 2008). Online celebrity bashing can be defined as “the online attacking and abuse of celebrities by journalists and the audience” (Ouvrein et al. 2018b, p. 4). Even though this behavior used to be a strictly journalistic practice, consisting of media mocking with and embarrassing celebrities (Johansson 2008), the audience has now largely taken over this behavior (Claessens and Van den Bulck 2014; Van den Bulck and Claessens 2014). Prevalence rates of a recent study on celebrity bashing behavior among adolescents found that 27% of the participants had participated in some forms of celebrity bashing in the past 6 months (Ouvrein et al., 2018). Most of these participants indicated to have participated in mild forms of celebrity bashing, such as insulting celebrities about their physical appearance, whereas a small minority also experimented with severe forms, such as editing online videos in an embarrassing way.

Taking these specific types of negative online behavior into account, celebrity bashing can thus be considered as a specific form of online aggression. Moreover, the concept has regularly been related to cyberbullying. Indeed, both behaviors seem to show some clear overlaps concerning the three criteria used to define cyberbullying (Ouvrein et al. 2017). First of all, just as with cyberbullying, celebrity bashing behaviors can take lots of different forms, but in order to call a behavior celebrity bashing, the practice should be adopted to intentionally insult and/or hurt celebrities (Dalla Pozza et al. 2011).

The “intentional insulting character” of the behavior is an important aspect in the definition of celebrity bashing, in order to distinguish this behavior from negative celebrity critiquing or trolling, which rather have the intention to stimulate disagreement and frustration among the audience. Second, celebrity bashing is repeatedly targeted at the same celebrities (cfr. Second criterion) who are also the more “vulnerable” ones, such as celebrities with a working-class background—the young, the ill, or the addicted (Williamson 2010). This, in combination with the fact that even celebrities are relatively powerless in front of the dominant media (Williamson 2010) and the massive online audience, creates a situation in which the celebrity-victim has difficulty defending him or herself (cfr. Third criterion). Nevertheless, some discussion concerning these criteria of cyberbullying is still ongoing with some authors adding some extra criteria for cyberbullying, which seem to point to differences between cyberbullying and online celebrity bashing. Greene (2000), for instance, states that cyberbullying mostly happens within a familiar context, such as between peers who know each other in real life. Celebrity bashing clearly differs from cyberbullying on this point, as the perceived distance between the perpetrator and the celebrity-victim is quite high. Due to this higher perceived distance, audience members seem to show less empathy and are less able to correctly estimate the potential impact of the behavior (Ouvrein et al. 2017, 2018a).

Similarly as for cyberbullying, people can be involved in celebrity bashing in three different roles: as perpetrators, celebrity-victims, or bystanders, of which the latter is the interest of this study. Given the growing number of situations of online celebrity bashing (Ouvrein et al. 2019; Van den Bulck and Claessens 2014), and the general high interest in celebrity news (De Backer et al. 2007), many people will become bystanders of celebrity bashing. Previous research suggested that this regular confrontation with online aggression towards celebrities seems to stimulate more acceptance towards this type of online aggression among bystanders (Ouvrein, Pabian, Machimbarrena, Vandebosch, & De Backer, 2018). In a focus-group study among adolescent girls, participants showed more acceptability towards celebrity bashing compared with cyberbullying, and interpreted this type of behavior as a normal and harmless part of the life of celebrities (Ouvrein et al. 2017). This becomes even more problematic when bystanders translate these attitudes into their own behavior towards celebrities, and also towards other targets, such as peers (Paull et al. 2012), as several studies found strong correlations between celebrity bashing and cyberbullying (Ouvrein et al. 2018; Pyżalski 2012). In that way celebrity bashing seems to cultivate an acceptance of online aggression culture among bystanders of this behavior.

Despite its relevance for the field of online aggression, there is little knowledge about why bystanders start to attack celebrities themselves. In this study, we decided to address this question by focusing on the relationship between the physiological system that regulates empathy and the bystanders’ acceptance of online celebrity bashing. We will start with a literature overview on the existing knowledge on empathy and oxytocin. This will be followed by the description of the methodology and results of the experimental study. Last, the implications of this study will be discussed.

Empathy and Its Role in Explaining Celebrity Bashing Behavior

Empathy is the human ability to perceive the mental states of other beings and share their affective states (Singer 2006). Empathy regulates social behavior by allowing to quickly understand and co-experience the emotions and motivations of other people (Singer 2006). As a result, disturbances of empathy heavily impede social functioning, which is visible in psychiatric conditions characterized with deficits in empathy (e.g., autism: Dziobek et al. 2008; schizophrenia: Lee et al. 2011; personality disorders: Herpertz and Bertsch 2014). In order to successfully interact with other people, it is necessary to be able to correctly assess and reflect their affective state. Therefore, it is not surprising that empathy is also important for protecting people from participation in several types of (online) aggression (Preece and Ghozati 2001), especially among bystanders (Barlinska et al. 2013; Machackova and Pfetsch 2016; Pabian et al. 2016) and perpetrators of cyberbullying (Ang and Goh 2010; Steffgen et al. 2011).

Recent meta-analyses demonstrate that lower empathy is associated with higher chances of becoming a perpetrator of online aggression (Zych et al. 2018a; Zych, Farrington, & Ttofi, 2019). Empathy also steers bystanders’ behavior in situations of online aggression. Having more empathy for the victim because of an existing friendship increases the bystanders’ chances to intervene (Thornberg et al. 2012; DeSmet et al. 2016). Having less empathy for the victim, on the other hand, increases the acceptance towards the behavior (Obermann 2011), which in turn reduces the motivation to support the victim (Thornberg et al. 2012). Recently, Ouvrein et al. 2018a demonstrated that empathy is also an important explaining variable for celebrity bashing. The authors found that lower self-reported empathy is a predictor of participation in severe types of online aggression towards celebrities. Having trouble to accurately estimate the affective states of potential victims is thus generally hypothesized to be the reason for an increased likelihood of engaging in these types of behaviors, especially online, where less socially relevant stimuli are available, which makes empathizing even more difficult (due to anonymity, lack of auditory cues, and lack of facial cues) (Steffgen et al. 2011).

However, also the victim of the online aggression and the relationship between the victim and bystander seem to play a role. Neurobiological research for instance found that, among males, empathic responses towards someone in pain significantly decreased when the victimization was considered as unfair (i.e., because that person had won the game) (Singer et al. 2006). This can be even more pronounced for online aggression directed at celebrities, as there is higher perceived social distance between the bully and the celebrity-victim (Pornari and Wood 2010). Contrary to most peer aggression incidents, in online aggression towards celebrities, perpetrators are mostly unknown (anonymous) to the celebrity-victim, maintain high distance towards the celebrity, and are unable to observe the negative consequences of their actions. As a result, it is possible that there are less feelings of empathy towards the celebrity compared with a situation in which the perpetrator knows the victim personally (Ouvrein et al. 2018a). Despite the fact that contemporary psychophysiological research provides tools to study the biological foundations of empathy, such an approach had not been yet used to address the problem of online aggression. Therefore, we aim to investigate the link between biological foundations of empathy and bystanders’ attitudes of acceptability towards online celebrity bashing with techniques reaching beyond self-report.

Self-report tools have numerous disadvantages and biases. For example, central tendency bias which is the inclination of respondents to avoid the extreme answers on a scale (Stevens 1971) or the self-presentation effect where participants manage their self-image by selecting the socially desirable answers (Paulhus and Vazire 2007). These problems concern empathy self-report measures as well (Neumann et al. 2015). Because of that, it is necessary to support the already existing self-report data linking the phenomena of empathy and bystanders of online aggression with more robust techniques, which could help to correctly estimate that relationship. We decided to examine the relation between neurophysiological correlates of empathy and the perceptions of celebrity bashing among bystanders. In particular, this study will focus on the oxytocinergic system.

Oxytocin

Oxytocin (OT) is a neurotransmitter and a hormone regulating various aspects of human social functioning. In particular, it is thought to promote bonding and affiliative behaviors (Kemp and Guastella 2011; Kirsch et al. 2005). With regard to empathy OT was shown to have several beneficial effects. Intranasal OT administrations seem to facilitate cognitive empathy, which is the human ability to accurately recognize the mental states of others (Domes et al. 2007; Shahrestani et al. 2013), as well as affective empathy, which is the ability to appropriately react to those states (Hurlemann et al. 2010; Geng et al. 2018). In particular, OT increases the saliency of social cues (Shamay-Tsoory and Abu-Akel 2016), which means that socially relevant stimuli are processed by the brain with higher priority. For example, OT administration increases the time people spend gazing at the eyes of other people, allowing them to gather more social information faster and recognize the emotions of others better (Guastella et al. 2008). Furthermore, OT is also thought to blur the distinction between the “self” and the “other,” which is the essence of being able to empathize with other people (Zhao et al. 2016). As a result of these effects, OT administrations were shown to increase expressions of sympathy felt for people who are in stressful situations (Geng et al. 2018; Hurlemann et al. 2010).

OT may achieve its effects by acting on the main areas of the brain regulating human capacity for empathy, namely the amygdala (Geng et al. 2018), the insula (Bos et al. 2015), and the superior frontal gyrus (Riem et al. 2013). Consistently, Barraza and Zak (2009) showed that blood levels of OT increase when people watch scenes that elicit empathy. In their experiment, Barraza and Zak (2009) presented participants with either an emotional video of a father describing his life with a terminally ill child or a father casually describing a trip to the zoo with his child. Only the empathy-inducing clips elicited OT release. The idea that OT regulates empathy can be used to study celebrity bashing. We expected that if celebrity bashing is indeed regulated by human capacity for empathy, it is possible that OT administration would affect bystanders’ perception of celebrity bashing behaviors. This idea was tested in a double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment. The main hypothesis of this study was that intranasal OT administration will decrease the expressed acceptance of online celebrity bashing behaviors.

Stress can have significant effects on how humans assess the behavior of others (Zadra and Clore 2011). In particular, stress is detrimental to empathy, because it redirects attention towards potential threats and steers it away from social cognition (van Honk et al. 2002). Because of that, we have decided to monitor the stress levels of the participants in our experiment. Past studies showed that OT administration is able to reduce the physiological markers of stress (Cardoso et al. 2014), as well as to facilitate physiological markers of cheerfulness and capacity for social engagement (i.e., the heart rate variability (HRV)) (Kemp et al. 2012). HRV is a measure of parasympathetic nervous system activity, which signifies reduced stress and redirects energy towards social cognition and positive emotionality (Kemp et al. 2012). Some researchers hypothesized that an increase in HRV could be the reason for the effects of OT administrations on empathy (Quintana et al. 2013). Therefore, the decision to measure the stress levels and HRV of the participants will allow us to examine a potential mediation of the hypothesized effects of OT administration on the acceptance of celebrity bashing.

Methods

Participants

A total of 60 male students, from the University of (Antwerp), were recruited by emails (Mage = 20.3, SD = 3.26). We decided to exclusively focus on men for this study since men and women can differ in their responsivity to intranasal OT administrations (Carter 2007; Rilling et al. 2014). Furthermore, celebrity bashing is common among both men and women, but adolescent boys appear to engage more often in online aggression directed at celebrities (Ouvrein et al. 2018b). The study was advertised as the following: “The effects of medicine administration on cognitive processes.” All participants were in good physical condition and reported no history of psychiatric illness. Participants were asked to refrain from using alcohol, tobacco, and other psychoactive substances for 12 h prior to the experiment. The experiment was approved by the Ethical Commission of the University of (Antwerp) (decision number 18/09/100). All participants signed written informed consent in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. After the experiment participants were remunerated with a show-up fee of €10.

Design and Variables

A 2 × 2 within-between design was used to test our hypothesis. Exposure to the tweets was designed within-subjects, with all the participants viewing both bashing tweets and neutral tweets. Drug administration was determined between-subjects, meaning that participants were randomly assigned to one of the two groups—the experimental group that received OT or the control group that received placebo. Thus, the two main independent variables used in this study were “group” (OT/placebo) and the “tweet type” (neutral/bashing). The experiment followed a double-blind design, which means that neither the participants nor the experimenters knew whether the participant received OT or placebo. The bottles containing the intranasal spray were label-coded by the pharmacy and the key to decode the labels was provided to experimenters only after the whole experiment concluded.

The main dependent variable in this study was the “acceptance of the bashing tweets.” The participants’ autonomic activity was recorded during the task. It yielded the stress levels in the form of sympathetic activity (“tonic EDA” and “phasic EDA”) and the capacity for social engagement in the form of parasympathetic activity (“HRV”).

The task reported here was part of a bigger project concerning the mechanisms responsible for the influence of oxytocin on empathy. Therefore, the participants also performed the Heartbeat Tracking Task (Garfinkel et al. 2015), the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (Baron-Cohen et al. 2001), and an empathy for pain task. The results of these tasks will be reported elsewhere and are available from the corresponding author on request.

Procedure

Upon arrival at the laboratory participants were equipped with electrodes for physiological recordings (see the “Physiological Recordings” section). Next, participants self-administered an intranasal dose of 24 IU OT (Syntocinon) or placebo (saline solution). The placebo and OT were prepared by the pharmacy of the University Hospital of (blinded for review). Before starting the tasks participants waited for 40 min to allow the drug to take effect. During the waiting time participants completed the NEO-FFI questionnaire (Costa and McCrae 1992) and Raven Progressive Matrices (Raven 2003). After the waiting time participants performed the tasks in the following order: Heartbeat Tracking Task (Garfinkel et al. 2015), Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (Baron-Cohen et al. 2001), the Empathy for pain task, and, finally, the celebrity bashing task.

The Celebrity Bashing Task

Acceptance of celebrity bashing was measured with a task designed specifically for this study. In this task participants first viewed on a computer screen a short biogram of a fictional, unknown celebrity. The celebrities used in this study were fictional to avoid noise introduced by the pre-existing sympathies of the participants towards known celebrities. One manipulation in a short experiment is unlikely to change the pre-existing attitudes towards real celebrities. Moreover, previous research indicated that pre-existing attitudes are more significant predictors of the eventual attitudes (Petty and Cacioppo 1986) and might thus bias our results.

Two biograms were presented and 4 messages about the celebrities from the biograms were shown after each biogram, forming a total of 8 trials. The messages were presented as “tweets,” which is a specific form of messages used on a social media platform called “Twitter.” Twitter is currently one of the most popular social media websites and a major outlet of celebrity-related internet traffic, including celebrity bashing (Stever and Lawson 2013) and thus represents a natural setting in which bystanders can be confronted with online celebrity bashing.

When viewing pictures of tweets participants answered a question on a 9-point scale for every tweet: “How appropriate do you find this tweet?” For every biogram, two tweets were designed to be neutral and two to be celebrity bashing. The tweets were created based on actual celebrity bashing messages and neutral messages exchanged on Twitter. We present an example of a tweet used in the study in Fig. 1. The Cronbach alpha was 0.63 for the neutral tweets and 0.64 for the bashing tweets, indicating an acceptable reliability of the answers.
Fig. 1

All the tweets used in the experiment as stimuli

Physiological Recordings

Stress levels and capacity for social engagement were measured by collecting the electrocardiogram (ECG) and electrodermal activity (EDA) of the participants.

ECG was recorded using a Biopac MP150 system and AcqKnowledge software. The electrodes (11 mm Ag/AgCl - EL503) were placed on the participants’ left forearm (+), right forearm (-), and left wrist (ground reference) forming Einthoven’s triangle (Potter and Bolls 2012). The sampling rate was set to 2000 Hz. After visual inspection and removal of artifacts high-frequency HRV was extracted with the KubiosHRV software (Biomedical Signal Analysis Group, Department of Applied Physics University of Kuopio, Finland).

EDA was also recorded using a Biopac MP150 system with AcqKnowledge software. The electrodes (11 mm Ag/AgCl - EL507) were placed on participants’ left palm. The sampling rate was set to 2000 Hz during the recording and reduced to 200 Hz for the analysis. The EDA signal was decomposed into mean tonic EDA and phasic EDA driver by using the continuous decomposition analysis with Ledalab software following the procedures devised by Benedek and Kaernbach (2010b). Tonic EDA is used as a measure of the slowly changing general level of arousal (Boucsein 2012), while phasic EDA signifies rapid spikes in stress elicited by environmental stimuli (Benedek and Kaernbach 2010a).

Data Analysis

The differences between OT and placebo groups will be tested with independent-samples Student’s t tests, since both groups consist of different participants. The difference in perceiving neutral and bashing tweets will be tested with a dependent-samples Student’s t test since it will compare the answers of the same participants to different types of items. The overall model will have to include both the between-subjects analysis (OT/placebo) and the within-subjects analysis (neutral/bashing tweets). Therefore, repeated measures ANOVA with between-subjects factors will be used, since it allows the inclusion of both. Repeated measures ANOVA will also be used to analyze the effect of the celebrity bashing task on EDA and HRV, since it will constitute a comparison of baseline levels and task levels of EDA and HRV. Correlations with the acceptance of tweets will be reported as Spearman’s ρ, since the overall acceptance of tweets is obtained by summing up answers given by participants on an interval scale. Other correlations will be reported as Pearson’s r.

Results

Descriptive Statistics

An analysis of the answers of all 60 participants showed that bashing tweets were ranked significantly lower on the approval scale than neutral tweets (t(59) = − 26.23, p < 0.01). A complete overview of the descriptive statistics and the results of independent-samples Student’s t tests for differences between the experimental groups can be found in Table 1. Correlations between the study variables are presented in Table 2.
Table 1

Descriptive statistics and independent-samples t test for differences between the placebo group and the OT group

Variable

Mean ± SD

t

df

p

d

Placebo group

OT group

Approval of bashing tweets

3.35 ± 1.43

2.66 ± 0.88

2.26

48.3

< 0.05*

0.58

Approval of neutral tweets

8.04 ± 1.02

7.81 ± 1.08

0.86

58

0.39

0.22

Heart rate

71.02 ± 12.29

72.24 ± 12.4

− 0.38

58

0.71

0.09

Phasic EDA

0.57 ± 0.39

0.66 ± 0.48

− 0.85

58

0.40

0.21

Tonic EDA

13.35 ± 5.52

15.50 ± 7.32

− 1.29

58

0.20

0.33

HRV

25.24 ± 15.70

20.75 ± 9.63

1.34

48.1

0.19

0.65

HRV heart rate variability, EDA electrodermal activity, d Cohen’s d

*p < 0.05

Table 2

Correlations between the study variables

 

Approval of bashing tweets

Approval of neutral tweets

Heart rate

HRV

Phasic EDA

Tonic EDA

Approval of bashing tweets

-

     

Approval of neutral tweets

.11

-

    

Heart rate

.05

.11

-

   

HRV

− .04

.30*

− .28*

-

  

Phasic EDA

.16

− .20

− .08

− .10

-

 

Tonic EDA

− .06

− .17

− .01

.04

.46**

-

HRV heart rate variability, EDA electrodermal activity

*p < 0.05, **p < 0.01

The Effects of the Task on Physiology

There was no significant change between baseline and the task in phasic EDA levels (F(1,58) = 2.11, p = 0.15, η2 = 0.04), and there was no difference between OT and placebo in that regard (F(1,58) = 0.92, p = 0.34, η2 = 0.02).

There was no significant change between baseline and the task in tonic EDA levels (F(1,58) = 0.50, p = 0.48, η2 = 0.01), and there was no difference between OT and placebo in that regard (F(1,58) = 0.04, p = 0.85, η2 = 0.00).

There was a significant increase between baseline and the task in HRV levels (F(1,58) = 9.80, p < 0.01, η2 = 0.15), but there was no difference between OT and placebo in that regard (F(1,58) = 0.86, p = 0.36, η2 = 0.02.

Overall, the stress levels of the participants did not increase, their capacity for social enagement increased, and there are no reasons to believe that OT administration affected the physiological state of the participants differently than placebo.

Hypothesis Testing

ANOVA with repeated measures was used to analyze the impact of OT administration on tweets’ ratings. Tweet type was set as a within-subjects factor and OT/placebo was set as a between-subjects factor. HRV and EDA were set as covariates. A main effect of tweet type was found (F(1,56) = 57.53, p < 0.01, η2 = 0.51), as well as marginally significant main effect of placebo/OT (F(1,56) = 3.97, p = 0.05, η2 = 0.06). The interaction effect was insignificant (F(1,56) = 1.86, p = 0.18, η2 = 0.03). A post hoc analysis revealed that the main effect of OT/placebo was driven mostly by the influence of OT on the acceptance of bashing tweets (see Fig. 2). Cohen’s d effect size for the difference in acceptance of bashing tweets between OT and placebo was 0.59. Because standard deviations of the experimental group and control group differed (Levene’s test for equality of variance: F = 5.27, p < 0.05), we have also calculated Glass’s delta effect size ( = 0.49) (Ialongo 2016), as well as adjusted the degrees of freedom in the t test.
Fig. 2

Mean expressed acceptance of different types of tweets in the experimental groups

There were no differences between the OT group and the placebo group in the measured markers of stress (phasic EDA) and capacity for social engagement (HRV) (see Table 1). Because OT administration did not affect neither stress nor capacity for social engagement, the mediation analysis could not have been performed. Phasic EDA and HRV were therefore only included as control variables in the ANOVA analysis.

There was no correlation between the acceptance of celebrity bashing and stress (see Table 1). Therefore, there is no reason to believe that the effects of OT administration were mediated by stress responsivity. The acceptance for neutral tweets was positively related to HRV (ρ(60) = 0.30, p < 0.05), which indicates that higher parasympathetic activity prompts people to express more acceptance towards neutral messages, but not negative messages.

Discussion

The aim of this study was to investigate if intranasal OT administration will have an effect on bystanders’ acceptance of online celebrity bashing. The oxytocinergic system is known to regulate empathy and intranasal OT administrations were shown to enhance both affective empathy (Hurlemann et al. 2010; Geng et al. 2018) and cognitive empathy (Domes et al. 2007; Shahrestani et al. 2013). Therefore, based on the hypothesis that the perception of celebrity bashing is also grounded in human capacity for empathy (Ouvrein et al. 2018a), we hypothesized that OT administration will decrease bystanders’ acceptance of online celebrity bashing. A double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment was performed to test this idea.

The results of the experiment partially supported our hypothesis and showed that bystanders of celebrity bashing who were administred with intranasal OT showed less acceptability towards this type of aggression. OT administration had no effect on bystanders’ opinion of neutral tweets, demonstrating that the effect of OT is specific for negative comments. This is consistent with the past studies, which have shown that OT administration exerts the largest effects when the tasks at hand are socially relevant (Bartz et al. 2011). We have found neither a relationship between the participants’ autonomic activity and their acceptance of celebrity bashing nor an effect of OT administration on autonomic activity. This indicates that neither stress nor HRV played a mediating role between the oxytocinergic system and acceptance of celebrity bashing. Thus, in our interpretations, we rely on the fact that OT regulates human empathy, but the exact mechanism of its action on acceptance of celebrity bashing remains open to investigation.

Based on existing literature and our findings, it can be suggested that bystanders’ empathy might be an important variable to include when further exploring these mechanisms. Indeed, empathy was found to be a powerful buffer for participations in a broad range of negative behaviors, including for online celebrity bashing (Ouvrein et al., 2018), and has been successfully targeted in cyberbullying intervention initiatives among both perpetrators and bystanders. For example, the Spanish Cyberprogram 2.0 has a strong focus on activities concerning feelings and the emotional experience of victims (Garaigordobil and Martínez-Valderrey 2016). This program has also been evaluated across different types of (cyber)bullying and situations and seems to be effective in decreasing online aggression and promoting interventions among bystanders (Garaigordobil and Martınez-Valderrey 2015; Garaigordobil and Martínez-Valderrey, 2016; Garaigordobil and Martínez-Valderrey 2014). Research investigating the beneficial effects of empathy in the context of modern media from a biological viewpoint is limited. Our study provides some first ideas of the potential processes that can stimulate positive outcomes of this kind of interventions, suggesting that facilitating empathy may prevent online aggression, and celebrity bashing in particular. The fact that OT decreased the acceptance of online celebrity bashing is of critical importance, because human bodies are able to produce OT on their own. In that way, increasing OT might have some potential for effectively changing bystanders’ positive attitudes towards celebrity bashing and in turn inhibiting them from participation in celebrity bashing.

Numerous factors were shown to lead to an increase in endogenous levels of OT. Taken this literature together, it is safe to say that OT is released in most positive social encounters (for an overview, see Crockford et al. 2014). For instance, OT is released when parents play with their children, both in the parents (Strathearn et al. 2009; Strathearn et al. 2012) and in the children (Feldman et al. 2014; Fries et al. 2005). A mere touch from a significant other can cause OT release (Grewen et al. 2005). Furthermore, OT is not only released during positive social interactions, but higher rate of OT release correlates with more interaction quality (Crockford et al. 2014). As a result, OT works in a positive-feedback loop where its release improves interaction quality, and better interaction quality facilitates more OT release (Apter-Levy et al. 2013; Feldman et al. 2010; Lopatina et al. 2013).

Interestingly, Brondino et al. (2017) demonstrated that OT is released when people gossip, while Kéri and Kiss (2011) observed an increase in OT when people share intimate secrets. Celebrities regularly become the topic of gossip (i.e., celebrity gossip) (Foster 2004). Moreover, celebrity gossip is known for its strong social bonding potential, which is determined by the fact that everyone is familiar with the object of the gossip (Reyes 2007), making celebrities easy conversation openers (Giddens 1991). Talking with others about celebrities, regardless of the relationship with them (i.e., known vs unknown), can operate as a “gossip-fodder” and stimulates the group cohesion among the actors (Johansson 2006, p. 346; Feasey 2008). Furthermore, talking about celebrity gossip does not only intensify the social bonds with the other gossipers, it also appears to increase the feelings of attachment towards the involved celebrity (Ouvrein et al., under review). Some people will even develop parasocial relationships with celebrities as a result of their strong attachement to these media figures (Giles and Maltby 2004). It is known that people who have strong bonds with others and maintain an extended support network score higher on OT (Gordon et al. 2008). The combination of the social bonding potential of celebrity gossip and real online interactions with celebrities thus creates a very convenient climate for the natural elevation of oxytocin.

There are multiple avenues for future research, which could utilize psychophysiological methods for studying online celebrity bashing. It may be valuable if intervention studies aimed at reducing online aggression could involve a measurement of their impact on endogenous OT levels. A change in naturally occurring OT levels could be a mediator of the psychological effects of such interventions. This approach is not limited to studying the oxytocinergic system only. Modern techniques allow for a non-invasive assessment of catecholaminergic activity. For instance, 3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenylglycol (MHPG)—a metabolite of noradrenaline—was shown to correlate with aggression (Coccaro et al. 2003) and stress (Mitoma et al. 2008). Antisocial behavior was also found to be predicted by lowered levels of a serotonin metabolite—5-hydroxyindoloacetic acid (5-HIAA) (Moore et al. 2002). Furthermore, the levels of homovanillic acid (HVA)—a metabolite of dopamine—were demonstrated to be lower in neglected children and predict the occurrence of ADHD symptoms (Gerra et al. 2007). A complex, holistic study aimed at preventing online aggression could benefit from using biomarkers as a tool of assessing its effectiveness.

There are some limitations to our study. One of them is the inclusion of only men. The effects of intranasal OT administration may differ between men and women (Rilling et al. 2014). Therefore, the results obtained in our study can only be generalized with regard to men. A natural continuation of our experiment would be a replication with a female population. However, because OT is used as a childbirth-inducing drug (Hodnett et al. 2012), it is necessary to issue a pregnancy test to every female participant before including it in a study with intranasal OT administration. Second, we have only collected objective measures of stress, but we have not asked participants about their subjectively perceived stress. Objective and subjective stress levels differ and typically do not correlate (Dieleman et al. 2010; Dieleman et al. 2015; Evans et al. 2013; Karkow et al. 2004; Oldehinkel et al. 2011). Therefore, we cannot determine if subjective perception of the participants’ arousal was a mediating factor between OT administration and acceptance of celebrity bashing. Third, we have not measured the participants’ acceptance of positive messages, despite the fact that it is known that celebrity gossip covers all negative, neutral, and positive messages (De Backer and Fisher 2012). Although we have no reasons to believe that OT administration would alter the perception of positive messages in any way, they would still contribute to a more complete set of control conditions. Finally, the celebrities used in our study were fictional. Pre-existing attitudes towards certain celebrities can have a strong impact on how OT relates to celebrity bashing (Petty and Cacioppo 1986). In particular, OT was shown to increase prosocial behaviors towards in-group members, but it was also shown to increase aggression towards out-group members (Olff et al. 2013). By strengthening the bonds between members of the same group OT also facilitates their in-group favoritism and the derogation of out-group members (De Dreu et al. 2011). Therefore, it is possible that OT could promote antisocial behavior towards hated celebrities (i.e., those perceived as out-group members). As a result, the limitations of our study also outline its logical continuation, namely, studies with women, controlling for subjective perception of stress, positive messages as well as studies on the acceptance of aggression towards known celebrities.

In conclusion, our study shows that intranasal OT administration reduces bystanders’ acceptance of celebrity bashing. This result is important for two reasons. First, we demonstrate that having meaningful social relationships which increases OT levels may constitute a protective factor, preventing online aggression. Second, the physiological correlates of psychological phenomena may help assess the effectiveness of interventions designed to limit cyberbullying.

Notes

Compliance with Ethical Standards

The experiment was approved by the Ethical Commission of the University of (Antwerp) (decision number 18/09/100). All participants signed written informed consent in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki.

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Communication ScienceUniversiteit AntwerpenAntwerpBelgium
  2. 2.AntwerpBelgium

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