Oxytocin increases empathy to pain when adopting the other- but not the self-perspective

There is growing evidence that the neuropeptide oxytocin (OT) facilitates various forms of sensitivity to others, but the mechanism by which OT enhances empathy in humans is unclear.

In this study, we examined whether OT increases empathy by the way of blurring the distinction between self and other, or by enhancing the difference between self and other.

In this double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subject crossover design, empathic responses of healthy participants were compared when imagining oneself (i.e., self-perspective empathy) versus when imagining the other (i.e., other-perspective empathy) in painful and nonpainful situations. Under OT treatment, participants expressed more empathy when imagining others than when imagining oneself in pain.

This was in contrast to the placebo condition where there were no differences between the empathic responses during the self- and the other-perspective. We propose that the modulatory effect of OT on empathy when taking the other-perspective may be mediated by its role in self- and other-distinctiveness and corollary by its role in increasing salience to social agents and cues.