Recent research shows that the effects of oxytocin are more diverse than initially thought and that in some cases oxytocin can directly influence the response to drugs and alcohol. Large individual differences in basal oxytocin levels and reactivity of the oxytocin system exist. This paper will review the literature to explore how individual differences in the oxytocin system arise and examine the hypothesis that this may mediate some of the individual differences in susceptibility to addiction and relapse. Differences in the oxytocin system can be based on individual factors, e.g. genetic variation especially in the oxytocin receptor, age or gender, or be the result of early environmental influences such as social experiences, stress or trauma. The paper addresses the factors that cause individual differences in the oxytocin system and the environmental factors that have been identified to induce long-term changes in the developing oxytocin system during different life phases. Individual differences in the oxytocin system can influence effects of drugs and alcohol directly or indirectly. The oxytocin system has bidirectional interactions with the stress-axis, autonomic nervous system, neurotransmitter systems (e.g. dopamine, serotonin and GABA/glutamate) and the immune system. These systems are all important, even vital, in different phases of addiction. It is suggested that early life adversity can change the development of the oxytocin system and the way it modulates other systems. This in turn could minimise the negative feedback loops that would normally exist. Individuals may show only minor differences in behaviour and function unless subsequent stressors or drug use challenges the system. It is postulated that at that time individual differences in oxytocin levels, reactivity of the system or interactions with other systems can influence general resilience, drug effects and the susceptibility to develop problematic drug and alcohol use. © 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.