Protracted or repeated activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system is associated with a variety of physical and psychological pathologies. Studies dating back to the 1970s have documented many cases in which the presence of a social companion can moderate HPA responses to stressors. However, there also are many cases in which this "social buffering" of the HPA axis is not observed. An examination of the literature indicates that the nature of the relationship between individuals is crucial in determining whether or not social buffering of the HPA response will occur. Other factors that affect social buffering, either directly or by influencing the social relationship, include the social organization of the species, previous experience, gender, integration into a social unit, and the developmental stage at which individuals are examined. Current evidence suggests that social buffering involves mechanisms acting at more than one level of the CNS. It is suggested that, in addition to promoting health, social buffering may have evolved to direct the establishment of social relationships, and to facilitate developmental transitions in social interactions appropriate for different life stages.