Common anti-depressant ‘makes people less selfish’. Is this a cure for anti-social behaviour?

According to a study published in the journal Current Biology, citalopram (a common anti-depressant widely prescribed in the UK) has a dramatic effect on the moral compass of people taking it.

Researchers testing the serotonin-enhancing drug on healthy subjects found that during a double-blind randomised trial (in which neither participants nor researchers know who is taking what until after the data has been recorded) the drug made participants more selfless. To be specific, test subjects were willing to pay nearly twice as much to prevent harm to others – in the form of a ‘mildly painful’ electric shock – than those given a placebo.

The study, carried out by researchers at University College London, also found that the dopamine-boosting Parkinson’s drug levodopa made healthy people more selfish. Participants were more likely to prefer to harm others rather than themselves.

Test subjects taking placebos were prepared to pay, on average, 35p per shock to prevent harm to themselves and 44p per shock to prevent harm to others. On citalopram they were willing to part with an average of 60p per shock to prevent harm to themselves and 73p per shock to prevent harm to others. In contrast, participants taking levodopa weren’t willing to pay more to prevent harm to others. They were prepared to pay an average of 35p per shock to prevent harm to themselves or others. They were also quicker to deliver shocks.

The researchers say that this study provides an insight into the neural basis of clinical disorders such as psychopathy and narcissism. The study’s lead author, Dr Molly Crockett, explains why:

‘Our findings have implications for potential lines of treatment for antisocial behavior, as they help us to understand how serotonin and dopamine affect people’s willingness to harm others for personal gain. We have shown that commonly prescribed psychiatric drugs influence moral decisions in healthy people, raising important ethical questions about the use of such drugs.’

In other words, the study raises a question that is now looming large in discussions of psychotropic drugs. Will we soon see the use of these drugs to alter the moral attitudes of people not suffering from psychiatric disorders?

Dr Crockett specifically refers to anti-social behaviour. This raises a more specific and troubling question. Will governments, police and public health authorities soon have access to drugs that stop people breaking the law?

  • TNT

    In short, yes it is an antidote to anti-social behaviour.

    In my line of work, I have seen many people become their best selves with antidepressants – possibly the most unfairly maligned pharmaceuticals of all.

    • MC

      A lot anxious/depressed people are actually already too nice to start, and giving them medication which will make them even more selfless is dangerous. I needed to help myself before helping others, and when I look back on the years I was on an SSRI, I see that I became easily exploited, and it harmed me. Maybe some of your patients need to be selfish in order to improve.

      • Lightbox9

        That’s very interesting, MC. In my experience, overly-malleable nice people always find it easier to start saying no once they are on these drugs. Of course, there is also the talk therapy that aids and abets that shift in self-confidence and perception of self-worth.

        I’m very sorry that SSRIs caused you to ‘coast’ in all the wrong ways like that.