Oxytocin modulates cooperation within and competition between groups: an integrative review and research agenda

Horm Behav. 2012 Mar;61(3):419-28. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2011.12.009. Epub 2011 Dec 20.


The author reviews evidence that hypothalamic release (or infusion) of the neuropeptide oxytocin modulates the regulation of cooperation and conflict among humans because of three reasons. First, oxytocin enables social categorization of others into in-group versus out-group. Second, oxytocin dampens amygdala activity and enables the development of trust. Third, and finally, oxytocin up-regulates neural circuitries (e.g., inferior frontal gyrus, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, caudate nucleus) involved in empathy and other-concern. Consistent with an evolutionary perspective on the functionality of cooperation, it is concluded that oxytocin-motivated cooperation is mostly parochial-it motivates (i) in-group favoritism, (ii) cooperation towards in-group but not out-group members, and (iii) defense-motivated non-cooperation towards threatening outsiders. Thus, in addition to its well-known role in reproduction and pair-bond formation, oxytocin's primary functions include in-group "tend-and-defend." This review concludes with avenues for new research on oxytocin's functions in within-group cooperation and between-group competition. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Social Behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Competitive Behavior / physiology*
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Discrimination, Psychological
  • Empathy / physiology
  • Fear / psychology
  • Group Processes*
  • Humans
  • Love
  • Oxytocin / physiology*
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Social Behavior
  • Trust


  • Oxytocin