The Dark Side of Oxytocin

For a hormone, oxytocin is pretty famous. It’s the “cuddle chemical”—the hormone that helps mothers bond with their babies. Salespeople can buy oxytocin spray on the internet, to make their clients trust them. It’s known for promoting positive feelings, but more recent research has found that oxytocin can promote negative emotions, too. The authors of a new review article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, takes a  look at what oxytocin is really doing.

Oxytocin’s positive effects are well known. Experiments have found that, in games in which you can choose to cooperate or not, people who are given more oxytocin trust their fellow players more. Clinical trials have found that oxytocin can help people with autism, who have trouble in social situations. Studies have also found that oxytocin can increase altruism, generosity, and other behaviors that are good for social life.

But the warm fuzzy side of oxytocin isn’t the whole story. “Quite a number of studies have shown it’s actually not that simple,” says Andrew Kemp of the University of Sydney, who cowrote the paper with his colleague Adam Guastella. Recent studies have found that people who were given oxytocin, then played a game of chance with a fake opponent, had more envy and gloating. These are also both social emotions, but they’re negative. “It kind of rocked the research world a little bit,” Kemp says. That led some researchers to think that oxytocin promotes social emotions in general, both negative and positive.

But Kemp and Guastella think oxytocin’s role is slightly different. Rather than supporting all social emotions, they think it plays a role in promoting what psychologists call approach-related emotions. These are emotions that have to do with wanting something, as opposed to shrinking away. “If you look at the Oxford English Dictionary for envy, it says that the definition of envy is to wish oneself on a level with another, in happiness or with the possession of something desirable,” Kemp says. “It’s an approach-related emotion: I want what you have.” Gloating is also about approach, he says; people who are gloating are happy—a positive, approach-related emotion—about having more than their opponent and about that person’s misfortune.

If Kemp and Guastella are right, that could mean that oxytocin could also increase anger and other negative approach-related emotions. That could have important implications for people who are studying how to use oxytocin as a psychiatric treatment. “If you were to take a convicted criminal with a tendency towards aggression and give him oxytocin to make him more social, and if that were to enhance anger as opposed to suppressing anger, then that has very substantial implications,” Kemp says.

Further research will show more about what emotions are promoted by oxytocin, Kemp says. “This research is really important because we don’t want to go ahead and attempt to treat a range and variety of psychiatric disorders with oxytocin without fully understanding the impact this may have on emotion and mood.”


What studies have been done to ascertain specific effects of oxytocin on extreme introverts; or on individuals who have endured long periods of social isolation or whose occupations require it; or on individuals commonly known as loners, who spend almost all their time indoors and without any communication or social interaction?

Hi ,
Well said Scott.

Have undertaken initial research with my son ASD aged 8 and have found the negative results quite profound. Aim was to reduce selfish non empathetic behaviour, but instead induced rage at his position circumstantial and brought out colourful expressions, even though knowing they were bad and never to be said. Oh well back to the drawing board and Might help Dad.

That’s a shame Nick. I’m just entering in a research study with my twin boys (also with ASD)

I suspect that oxytocin is threatening to people with ASD. Feelings of trust have actually become interlinked with feelings of betrayal if it was induced by abuse. If it is genetic somehow, the link may be there genetically.

Looking for something that creates a feeling of safety, which might be a reduction of adrenaline, or confidence, which might be an increase of adrenaline, because adrenaline by increasing cortisol demineralized amino acids and causes the blood to be Optimum, which feels good. I guess that’s the adrenaline rush people get.

So not suggesting either one, but suggesting looking in increasing confidence and safety rather than intimacy for ASD. Power and control and having impact, the latter might relate especially to acting anti-social because people perceive you more, might be a direction to look at. Still not sure what that would mean except putting them in an environment that they can totally control, one where all the choices are safe so you don’t have to try to exert your control on their choices, giving them a feeling of being in control confident and safe.

It looks more to me like a very solid set of expectations which they can work around. I have a friend with ASD, and had mentioned to him that the internet increases hallucinations, which he also has, and he got off the internet and his hallucinations reduced. So living more based in the real world was useful to him, but whether it was because people didn’t contradict him as much, which they did on the website, or because of the benefits of being in the real world that has more consistent rules, physics as it were, I don’t know.

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.