The oxytocin system has garnered considerable interest in the biobehavioral sciences for its role social behavior and cognition, as well as for the potential of intranasal administration to treat social difficulties. However, there has been little consideration for the evolutionary and developmental history of oxytocin to inform current theoretical models for understanding the role of oxytocin signaling. In this article, we adopt an ethological approach through the lens of Niko Tinbergen’s “four questions”: How does oxytocin work? How does the role of oxytocin change during development? How does oxytocin enhance survival and reproduction? How did the oxytocin system evolve? These insights harmonize behavioral and physiological perspectives to deliver a more complex and nuanced model of oxytocin signaling where oxytocin can be more accurately described as an allostatic hormone that maintains stability through changing environments. This model can be used to explain many of the seemingly inconsistent outcomes from experimental studies that have tested models that are too simplistic, such as the proposal that oxytocin is a prosocial hormone. The approach also identifies physiological processes that warrant further investigation as markers of oxytocin response in the human body. We show that an ethological approach can inform how development, context, and predictions shaped by past experience may all modulate oxytocin signaling. We propose that oxytocin signaling disruptions underpin subsequent allostatic impairment observed in many psychiatric disorders, particularly in social contexts, and that these interferences occur in learning, prediction, and response processes.
Quintana, D.S. and Guastella, A.J. (2019). An integrative allostatic account of oxytocin: maintaining stability through change. OSF Preprints, https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/j7tnf