Biological aspects of social bonding and the roots of human violence

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2004 Dec;1036:106-27. doi: 10.1196/annals.1330.006.


The brain systems that motivate humans to form emotional bonds with others probably first evolved to mobilize the high-quality maternal care necessary for reproductive success in placental mammals. In these species, the helplessness of infants at birth and their dependence upon nutrition secreted from their mothers' bodies (milk) and parental body heat to stay warm required the evolution of a new motivational system in the brain to stimulate avid and sustained mothering behavior. Other types of social bonds that emerged subsequently in placental mammals, in particular monogamous bonds between breeding pairs, appear to have evolved from motivational brain systems that stimulate maternal behavior. This chapter focuses on aspects of the evolution and neurobiology of maternal and pair bonding and associated behavioral changes that may provide insights into the origins of human violence. The roles of the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin as well as the neurotransmitter dopamine will be emphasized. Maternal and pair bonding are accompanied by increased aggressiveness toward perceived threats to the object of attachment as well as diminished fear and anxiety in stressful situations. The sustained closeness with mother required for the survival of infant mammals opened a new evolutionary niche in which aspects of the mother's care became increasingly important in regulating development in offspring. The quantity and quality of maternal care received during infancy determines adult social competence, ability to cope with stress, aggressiveness, and even preference for addictive substances. Indeed, the development of neurochemical systems within the brain that regulate mothering, aggression, and other types of social behavior, such as the oxytocin and vasopressin systems, are strongly affected by parental nurturing received during infancy. Evidence will be reviewed that the neural circuitry and neurochemistry implicated in studies of lower mammals also facilitate primate/human interpersonal bonding. It is hypothesized that neural bonding systems may also be important for the development in individuals of loyalty to the social group and its culture. Neglect and abuse during early life may cause bonding systems to develop abnormally and compromise capacity for rewarding interpersonal relationships and commitment to societal and cultural values later in life. Other means of stimulating reward pathways in the brain, such as drugs, sex, aggression, and intimidating others, could become relatively more attractive and less constrained by concern about violating trusting relationships. The ability to modify behavior based on negative experiences may be impaired. Unmet needs for social bonding and acceptance early in life might increase the emotional allure of groups (gangs, sects) with violent and authoritarian values and leadership. Social neurobiology has the potential to provide new strategies for treating and preventing violence and associated social dysfunction.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Affect
  • Anxiety Disorders / blood*
  • Anxiety Disorders / epidemiology
  • Anxiety Disorders / psychology
  • Biomarkers
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Culture
  • Dopamine / blood
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Leadership
  • Love
  • Male
  • Motivation
  • Object Attachment*
  • Oxytocin / physiology*
  • Peer Group
  • Sexual Behavior / physiology
  • Social Environment
  • Stress, Psychological / blood*
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology
  • Vasopressins / physiology*
  • Violence / prevention & control
  • Violence / psychology*
  • Violence / statistics & numerical data


  • Biomarkers
  • Vasopressins
  • Oxytocin
  • Dopamine