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Reviews in the Neurosciences

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Volume 28, Issue 4


Deciphering the modulatory role of oxytocin in human altruism

René Hurlemann
  • Corresponding author
  • Department of Psychiatry, University of Bonn Medical Center, D-53105 Bonn, Germany
  • Division of Medical Psychology, University of Bonn Medical Center, D-53105 Bonn, Germany
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  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
/ Nina Marsh
Published Online: 2017-03-16 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/revneuro-2016-0061


Unlike any other species, humans frequently engage in altruistic behaviors by which they increase another individual’s welfare even if this implies personal costs. The psychological motives underlying altruistic behaviors remain diverse, ranging from the ability to reciprocate trust and cooperation to bonding and empathizing with family members or even genetically unrelated others. This article explores the neuroendocrine architecture of altruism by emphasizing the crucial role of the evolutionarily highly conserved peptide hormone oxytocin as a modulator of cooperative behaviors including empathy-driven altruism. However, accumulating evidence suggests that oxytocin does not invariably facilitate cooperation but also produces protective or even defensive-aggressive responses in specific social contexts. In addition, we highlight the relevance of message frames as critical determinants of whether the peptide promotes altruism toward prosocial ends.

Keywords: altruism; altruistic punishment; empathy; oxytocin; parochial altruism


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About the article

Received: 2016-09-25

Accepted: 2017-01-06

Published Online: 2017-03-16

Published in Print: 2017-05-24

Citation Information: Reviews in the Neurosciences, Volume 28, Issue 4, Pages 335–342, ISSN (Online) 2191-0200, ISSN (Print) 0334-1763, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/revneuro-2016-0061.

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