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Genetically Programmed to Be Nice?

By Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on April 11, 2012

Genetically Programmed to Be Nice? Emerging research suggests that some people may be genetically endowed to be nice.

Investigators from the University at Buffalo and the University of California, Irvine, discovered the genetic association for a trait that many assume is a product of how we are raised.

“We aren’t saying we’ve found the niceness gene,” said researcher and psychologist Michael Poulin, Ph.D. ”But we have found a gene that makes a contribution. What I find so interesting is the fact that it only makes a contribution in the presence of certain feelings people have about the world around them.”

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, examines the behavior of subjects who have versions of receptor genes for two hormones that, in laboratory and close relationship research, are associated with niceness.

Previous laboratory studies have linked the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin to the way we treat one another, said Poulin. Psychologists believe the hormones make us nicer people, at least in close relationships. Oxytocin promotes maternal behavior, for example, and in the lab, subjects exposed to the hormone demonstrate greater sociability.

Poulin said the current study was an attempt to apply previous findings to social behaviors on a larger scale; to learn if these chemicals provoke in us other forms of prosocial behavior. Examples could be the urge to give to charity, or to more readily participate in such civic endeavors as paying taxes, reporting crime, giving blood or sitting on juries.

Scientists say that hormones work by binding to our cells through receptors that come in different forms. In that regard, there are several genes that control the function of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors.

Subjects were surveyed as to their attitudes toward civic duty, other people and the world in general, and about their charitable activities.

Specifically, participants completed an Internet survey with questions about civic duty, such as whether people have a duty to report a crime or pay taxes; how they feel about the world, such as whether people are basically good or whether the world is more good than bad; and about their own charitable activities.

Of those surveyed, 711 subjects provided a sample of saliva for DNA analysis, which showed what form they had of the oxytocin and vasopressin receptors.

“The study found that these genes combined with people’s perceptions of the world as a more or less threatening place to predict generosity,” Poulin said.

“Specifically, study participants who found the world threatening were less likely to help others – unless they had versions of the receptor genes that are generally associated with niceness,” he said.

These “nicer” versions of the genes, said Poulin, “allow you to overcome feelings of the world being threatening and help other people in spite of those fears.

“The fact that the genes predicted behavior only in combination with people’s experiences and feelings about the world isn’t surprising,” Poulin said, “because most connections between DNA and social behavior are complex.

“So if one of your neighbors seems really generous, caring, civic-minded kind of person, while another seems more selfish, tight-fisted and not as interested in pitching in, their DNA may help explain why one of them is nicer than the other,” he said.

Source: University at Buffalo

 

APA Reference
Nauert, R. (2012). Genetically Programmed to Be Nice?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 16, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2012/04/11/genetically-programmed-to-be-nice/37210.html