Oxytocin May Reduce Anxiety Related to Social Threats, But Only for Some

Oxytocin — a hormone thought to promote trust and empathy — has been considered as a possible tool for the treatment of social anxiety. But new research suggests that the effects of oxytocin are nuanced, promoting prosocial behaviors only in people with low social anxiety.

This new study, conducted by Ellen de Bruijn of Leiden University and Sina Radke of Radboud University Nijmegen, examined whether administration of oxytocin might influence how people respond to happy, angry, or neutral faces.

In some trials, the participants were asked to pull on a joystick to make the face to move toward them on the screen — a proxy for social approach behavior. On other trials, participants were asked to avoid particular expressions by pushing away on the joystick.

By examining participants’ responses to all possible behavior-face pairings, the researchers  were able to elucidate if oxytocin might modulate participants’ initial instinct, which is to approach happy faces and avoid angry faces.

As predicted, participants who received oxytocin via nasal spray were faster to approach angry faces than were participants given a placebo, suggesting that the drug may reduce anxiety about a social threat.

The effect did not hold, however, for people with high anxiety, who could potentially benefit the most.

“In individuals with severe social anxiety, our results showed that oxytocin may not provide sufficient anxiolytic properties to improve their social functioning,” the authors note.

Ultimately, the new research indicates that oxytocin facilitates approach behaviors in response to social threat, but that various dispositional factors — like baseline anxiety and levels of various hormones — are likely to play an important role in any oxytocin treatment.

Co-author on this research include Karin Roelofs of Radboud University Nijmegen.


Radke, S., Roelofs, K., & de Bruijn, E.R.A. (2013). Acting on Anger: Social Anxiety Modulates Approach-Avoidance Tendencies After Oxytocin Administration. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612472682

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