Oxytocin – The Love or Hate Neurotrasmitter

Everyone has heard of the saying “Friend or Foe”, but is it possible that both ends of the dichotomy can be caused by the same thing?

With all the social unrest that is happening around the world, this “Us vs Them” mentality has never been more profound than what we are experiencing today.

People from all different backgrounds, interests, and skin color are standing up for their rights in their fight for equality.  

So, on a neurological level, exactly what is happening inside the brains of these people who have pledged allegiance in their mission to voice their opinion for equality?


What does all of this have to do with marketing your brand at a time where there’s so much chaos?

In order to answer this question, let me introduce to you our mystery friend (or foe?) called oxytocin.    

Now, oxytocin is quite a complicated character.   It can be a real driver of positive social behaviors that’s rooted in trust, empathy and generosity.  However,  at the same time oxytocin can contribute to the total opposite where individuals experience loneliness and social separation.

For example – in a study that looked at the role of oxytocin in maternal bonding by Bar-IIan University, the team of psychologists headed by Ruth Feldman, PhD, found that women who had higher levels of oxytocin throughout their entire pregnancy had greater bonding with their babies by developing a more exclusive relationship with them by signing special songs, bathing and feeding their infants in caring ways.

Based on this study, it would be logical to say that high levels of oxytocin is a big contributor to social bonding, whereas low levels of oxytocin is associated with social separation.

But going back to what we said about oxytocin – it is a complicated character or in this case, a complicated neurotransmitter in the brain and body.  This is because oxytocin does not act alone in contributing to an individual’s social behavior.

Enter the hormone – Cortisol

In situations where there is a lot of stress and tension, levels of cortisol are higher than normal.  This is the case in fight or flight circumstances. 

Going back to oxytocin, it’s fascinating to find that levels of this neurotransmitter are also higher than normal during stressful times.

So, the most important takeaway here is that the type of social situation that a person is participating in will impact the levels of both oxytocin and cortisol.

In moments where tension and stress is high, both oxytocin and cortisol levels are high.  This usually leads to greater in-group affinity but at the cost of seeing all outsiders as a threat who do not share the same viewpoints on a specific topic.

So, even though there is great in-group affinity but reduced empathy for outsiders, the results is an “Us Vs. Them” mentality and this is what we are seeing with all the equality clashes among the groups of different perspectives on the social issues in today’s times


Social bonding that involves high levels of oxytocin can still take place in a healthy way in social situations that make the individual feel safe.  This occurs in what we call “Tend and Befriend” situations where stress and tension levels are low, so that the environment fosters the formation of trust, empathy and generosity between people.  

This is the type of social situation that we want to create in society and in marketing!

In both examples above, the levels of oxytocin are higher than normal, but due to the type of social situation (whether it’s a “Fight-or-Flight” situation or “Tend and Befriend” situation), this is a major variable will impact the level of the stress hormone, Cortisol, all of which will either contribute to feelings of social separation or social bonding.

So, as NEUROmarketers – We want to create marketing messages that associates our brand with the “Tend and Befriend” type of emotions and thinking.  

This way, we can create the most loyal tribe of customers that will look at your brand as the ultimate solution to their problems especially in a world where there is an overwhelming pool of choices to pick from.

This is why it’s so important to understand the role of oxytocin and its connection to cortisol and the type of social situation that impacts an individual’s social behavior.  

Ultimately, you want your brand to be strongly associated with positive social behavior that results in feelings of trust, in-group belonging, exclusivity, status, and uniqueness but also respects the beauty in diversity as well.