From Oxytocin to Compassion: The Saliency of Distress

Barbora Kucerova, Nava Levit-Binnun, Ilanit Gordon, Yulia Golland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Compassion is a warm response of care and concern for those who are suffering, which drives individuals to devote their resources for the sake of others. A prominent neuroevolutionary framework grounds compassion in the neurobiology of the mammalian caregiving system. Accordingly, it has been suggested that the oxytocinergic system, which plays a central role in parental caregiving and bonding, provides the neurobiological foundation for compassion towards strangers. Yet, the specific role of oxytocin in compassion is far from clear. The current paper aims to target this gap and offer a theoretical framework that integrates the state-of-the-art literature on oxytocin with research on compassion. We suggest that oxytocin mediates compassion by enhancing the saliency of cues of pain and distress and discuss the plausible underlying neurobiological substrates. We further demonstrate how the proposed framework can account for individual differences in compassion, focusing on the effects of attachment on caregiving and support. The proposed framework integrates the current scientific understanding of oxytocin function with compassion-related processes. It thus highlights the largely ignored attentional processes in compassion and taps into the vast variability of responses in social contexts involving pain and suffering.

Original languageEnglish
Article number183
Issue number2
StatePublished - 25 Jan 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 by the authors.


This research was funded by ISF 434/21 to IG.

FundersFunder number
Israel Science Foundation434/21


    • compassion
    • distress cues
    • individual differences
    • oxytocin
    • saliency


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