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Cultural Differences Impact Gene-Environment Interactions

A new study explores how genotypes (nature) can express themselves differently as a function of culture (nurture) by looking specifically at socio-emotional sensitivity and how emotions are regulated.

Socio-emotional sensitivity refers to how emotions are expressed in specific social and cultural environments.

The findings of Drs. Heejung Kim and David Sherman, both psychologists at the University of Santa Barbara, appear in the current issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“One of the oldest questions in psychology is how people are affected by nature and nurture,” said Sherman. “Everyone agrees that people are impacted by both, but the gene/culture interaction framework begins to specify how that happens by accounting for cultural variability as well. Depending on an individual’s cultural context, the same genotype can lead to very different phenotypes.”

Using the oxytocin receptor polymorphism (OXTR), which is linked to socio-emotional sensitivity, the researchers demonstrated that individuals can have the same gene, but manifest it differently, depending on their respective cultural experiences.

The study involved Korean and American participants, which allowed the researchers to compare the expression of OXTR in people raised in a more collectivistic East Asian society, with that of people who grew up in the more individualistic American society.

“There’s a genetic component to psychology that people are studying more and more,” said Kim. “The framework of gene-environment interaction already exists and has been very influential. Genes influence people’s reactivity to different things, such as environmental sensitivity and stress reactivity.”

As an example, Kim cited the genetic component to depression. A person can inherit the gene for depression, but studies show that the gene alone will not make him or her more prone to the condition.

“If you have the gene and you are subject to harsh life experiences, only then do you see genetic differences emerging,” she said. “That’s the gene/environment interaction.”

In the study, culture was defined as the environment.

“We wanted to see if people’s genes lead them to be more –– or less –– environmentally sensitive by examining people in different cultural environments,” Kim explained.

“If they are more sensitive to their environments, then they should behave in a more culturally consistent way. If I’m an emotionally sensitive person, when I look around my environment and the cultural norms say ‘this is the appropriate way to be,’ I’m more likely to be that way.”

Likewise, the person who does not have the gene for that trait would be less likely to adhere to cultural norms.

As part of the investigation, researchers studied the difference in emotion regulation strategies among people from Asian and American cultures. Prior research has identified that emotional suppression is more common in Asian cultures, and that Asians are less disturbed by the behavior.

After Korean and American participants completed assessments of emotion regulation, they were genotyped for OXTR.

Among Koreans, those with the GG genotype (the more environmentally sensitive people) reported using emotional suppression more than those with the AA genotype, whereas Americans showed the opposite pattern.

“In terms of gene-culture interactions, our research team has now found results in three different areas of psychology –– emotion regulation, interpersonal interaction in terms of social support seeking, and cognitive style,” said Sherman. “Each time, the genotype led to different psychological outcomes as a function of culture.”

“One of the goals of the research in terms of educating the public is that when thinking about genes, it’s important to avoid simplistic genetic essentialist thinking. The impact of genes is far more complex than genes directly leading to behavior traits” said Kim.

Kim believes there is a personal/environmental input, and now a cultural input as well. “When you look at differences in genetic composition, you can’t really assume that you can predict a person’s outcome,” she said.

Source: University of Santa Barbara

Cultural Differences Impact Gene-Environment Interactions

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Cultural Differences Impact Gene-Environment Interactions. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 9 Nov 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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