Ku Klux Klan members
KKK members in the organisation's distinctive costume Reuters

A well timed burst of the 'cuddle hormone' alongside a demonstration of tolerance could tap into the brain's potential for social acceptance and tolerance, neuroscientists have found. The research could help design more effective ways to encourage social integration and cohesion between refugees and natives in regions such as Europe.

Altruism isn't a uniquely human trait, but it's arguably one of our finest. A lack of altruism towards people from other cultures is one of the greatest problems to overcome in settling people in Europe who have fled war and conflict elsewhere. Neuroscientists at the University of Bonn in Germany have been experimenting with ways to increase xenophobic people's altruism towards refugees.

The scientists presented white European study participants with a series of hypothetical scenarios of a person too poor to buy fresh food or afford a ticket to museum. That person was either described as a German native or a refugee from regions such as Kosovo or Syria.

Giving study participants a dose of oxytocin – often known as the cuddle hormone – in a nasal spray boosted altruism among people who were already well disposed towards refugees. But by itself, that didn't do anything for the more xenophobic participants.

There was a significant difference, however, if the xenophobic people were given oxytocin alongside the example of a generous average donation to refugees by their peers. Just seeing the average donation without oxytocin didn't do the trick, either. Both the cuddle hormone and the good example had to be present to change their generosity.

"The importance of the combination has to do with the fact that xenophobia is a form of stress response. Oxytocin can reduce this but it can't change attitudes alone," study author René Hurlemann told IBTimes UK.

"Oxytocin also has a lot to do with social conformity. Given a social role model, people given oxytocin tend to want to conform to that."

But oxytocin nasal sprays and setting a good example aren't likely to be a practical solution for racism in everyday life. But the findings could feed into more realistic and achievable methods for boosting people's tolerance.

"There are ways to boost endogenous levels of oxytocin – whenever people come together to celebrate or socialise, oxytocin is released," Hurlemann.

As a result, better role models and portrayals of generosity during group gatherings could have a similar effect to that achieved in the study, he said.

The research is published in the journal PNAS.