Background: In nonhuman mammals, the neuropeptide oxytocin has repeatedly been shown to increase social approach behavior and pair bonding. In particular, central nervous oxytocin reduces behavioral and neuroendocrine responses to social stress and is suggested to mediate the rewarding aspects of attachment in highly social species. However, to date there have been no studies investigating the effects of central oxytocin mechanisms on behavior and physiology in human couple interaction.
Methods: In a double-blind placebo-controlled design, 47 heterosexual couples (total n = 94) received oxytocin or placebo intranasally before a standard instructed couple conflict discussion in the laboratory. The conflict session was videotaped and coded for verbal and nonverbal interaction behavior (e.g., eye contact, nonverbal positive behavior, and self-disclosure). Salivary cortisol was repeatedly measured during the experiment.
Results: Oxytocin significantly increased positive communication behavior in relation to negative behavior during the couple conflict discussion (F = 4.18, p = .047) and significantly reduced salivary cortisol levels after the conflict compared with placebo (F = 7.14, p = .011).
Conclusions: These results are in line with animal studies indicating that central oxytocin facilitates approach and pair bonding behavior. Our findings imply an involvement of oxytocin in couple interaction and close relationships in humans.