An Allostatic Theory of Oxytocin

Trends Cogn Sci. 2020 Jul;24(7):515-528. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2020.03.008. Epub 2020 Apr 29.


Oxytocin has garnered considerable interest for its role in social behavior, as well as for the potential of intranasal administration to treat social difficulties. However, current theoretical models for the role of oxytocin in social behavior pay little consideration to its evolutionary and developmental history. This article aims to broaden our understanding of the role of oxytocin in social behavior by adopting an ethological approach through the lens of Nikolaas Tinbergen's 'four questions' - how does oxytocin work; how does the role of oxytocin change during development; how does oxytocin enhance survival; and how did the oxytocin system evolve? We argue that oxytocin is most accurately described as an allostatic hormone that modulates both social and non-social behavior by maintaining stability through changing environments.

Keywords: neuroendocrinology; social behavior; social cognition.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Intranasal
  • Cognition*
  • Ethology
  • Humans
  • Oxytocin*
  • Social Behavior


  • Oxytocin