A new study suggests genetics may influence an individual’s enjoyment of performing good deeds for other people.
According to the study by researchers at the University of Bonn, a minute change in a particular gene is associated with a significantly higher willingness to donate time or money.
People with the genetic alteration gave twice as much money on average to a charitable cause as did other study subjects.
Researchers working with psychologist Professor Dr. Martin Reuter invited their students to take a “retention test” — the roughly 100 participants were to memorize series of numbers and then repeat them as correctly as possible. They received the sum of five Euros for doing this.
Afterwards, they could either take their hard-earned money home or donate any portion of it to a charitable cause. This decision was made freely and in apparent anonymity.
“However, we always knew how much money was in the cash box beforehand and could therefore calculate the amount donated,” Reuter said.
The scientists had asked their study subjects to undergo a cheek swab beforehand. They were able to extract DNA for genetic analyses from the sampled cells. In these analyses, they focused on one gene, the so-called COMT gene. It contains the building instructions for an enzyme which inactivates certain messengers in the brain, the most well-known of which is dopamine.
It has been known for nearly 15 years that there are two different variants of the COMT gene: COMT-Val and COMT-Met. Both versions, which occur in the population with approximately equal frequency, differ in only a single building block.
In the case of people with the COMT-Val variant, the associated enzyme works up to four times more effectively. Thus considerably more dopamine is inactivated in the brain of a person with this variant.
This mini-mutation also has effects on behavior: “Students with the COMT-Val gene donated twice as much money on average as did fellow students with the COMT-Met variant,” Reuter said.
“This is the first time that researchers have been able to establish a connection between a particular gene and altruistic deeds. However, it was already known from studies on twins that altruistic behavior is also partly influenced by our genes. ”
The Bonn scientists focused their analysis on the COMT gene with good reason: For several years, it has been known that dopamine is involved in regulating social behavior in animals and humans.
Dopamine, together with substances such as the neuropeptide vasopressin, influences sexuality and bonding. It is also linked with positive emotionality — such as the good feeling some people get from helping others.
The results were published in the journal Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience.
Source: University of Bonn