Oxytocin and the Neurobiology of Prosocial Behavior

Neuroscientist. 2021 Dec;27(6):604-619. doi: 10.1177/1073858420960111. Epub 2020 Sep 26.


Humans are an unusually prosocial species, who engage in social behaviors that include altruism-whereby an individual engages in costly or risky acts to improve the welfare of another person-care, and cooperation. Current perspectives on the neurobiology of human prosociality suggest that it is deeply rooted in the neuroendocrine architecture of the social brain and emphasize the modulatory role of the neuropeptide hormone oxytocin. In this review, we provide a conceptual overview of the neurobiology of prosocial behavior with a focus on oxytocin's modulatory role in human prosociality. Specifically, we aim to encourage a better understanding of the peptide's susceptibility to diverse factors that produce heterogeneity in outcomes and the resulting methodological implications for measuring the behavioral effects of oxytocin in humans. After providing an overview of the state-of-the-art research on oxytocin's exogenous use, we elaborate on the peptide's modulatory role in the context of care-based altruism, cooperation, and conflict and discuss its potential for therapeutic interventions in psychiatric disorders characterized by social dysfunction.

Keywords: altruism; care; oxytocin; prosocial behavior; social neuroscience.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Altruism
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders*
  • Oxytocin*
  • Social Behavior


  • Oxytocin