A heartfelt response: Oxytocin effects on response to social stress in men and women

Biol Psychol. 2012 Apr;90(1):1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2012.02.010. Epub 2012 Feb 23.


Background: Animal research indicates that oxytocin is involved in social behavior, stress regulation, and positive physiologic adaptation. This study examines whether oxytocin enhances adaptive responses to social stress and compares effects between men and women.

Methods: Hypotheses were tested with a placebo-controlled, double-blind experiment. Social stress was induced. Changes in cardiovascular reactivity, affect, and behavior were assessed.

Results: Participants given oxytocin, relative to placebo, responded to social stress with a challenge orientation characterized by a benign pattern of cardiovascular reactivity. Gender differences emerged. Men given oxytocin reported less negative affect and had greater vagal rebound, while women given oxytocin reported more anger and had better math performance following social stress.

Discussion: Findings indicate oxytocin stimulates an approach-oriented cardiovascular profile during social stress, suggesting mechanisms by which oxytocin might improve physical health. However, before considering oxytocin as therapeutic or uniformly enhancing health, greater understanding of possible gender differences in effects is needed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Cardiovascular System / drug effects*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Estradiol / analysis
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oxytocin / metabolism
  • Oxytocin / pharmacology*
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Behavior*
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*


  • Estradiol
  • Oxytocin