Most of us have met people who we instantly liked and felt we could trust, and others we immediately dislike.
Are these first impressions accurate?
Emerging research from University of California, Berkeley suggests first impressions are effective for determining whether a stranger is genetically inclined to being trustworthy, kind or compassionate.
Experts believe the findings reinforce that healthy humans are wired to recognize strangers who may help them out in a tough situation.
The relationship with genetics suggests genetic therapies may be developed for people who are not innately sympathetic, researchers said.
For the investigation, two dozen couples participated study, and each provided DNA samples. Researchers then documented the couples as they talked about times when they had suffered. Video was recorded only of the partners as they took turns listening.
A separate group of observers who did not know the couples were shown 20-second video clips of the listeners and asked to rate which seemed most trustworthy, kind and compassionate, based on their facial expressions and body language.
The listeners who got the highest ratings for empathy, it turned out, possess a particular variation of the oxytocin receptor gene known as the GG genotype.
“It’s remarkable that complete strangers could pick up on who’s trustworthy, kind or compassionate in 20 seconds when all they saw was a person sitting in a chair listening to someone talk,” said Aleksandr Kogan, lead author of the study.
“People can’t see genes, so there has to be something going on that is signaling these genetic differences to the strangers,” Kogan said.
“What we found is that the people who had two copies of the G version displayed more trustworthy behaviors — more head nods, more eye contact, more smiling, more open body posture. And it was these behaviors that signaled kindness to the strangers.”
This study reinforces and expands on an earlier Berkeley investigation on the human genetic predisposition to empathy. In the earlier investigation, researchers looked at three combinations of gene variations of the oxytocin receptors AA, AG and GG.
Researchers discovered people who were most empathetic — in that they were able to accurately interpret others’ emotions – had two copies of the “G allele.”
In contrast, members of the AA and AG allele groups were found to be less capable of putting themselves in the shoes of others and more likely to get stressed out in difficult situations.
Widely known as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone, oxytocin is secreted into the bloodstream and the brain, where it promotes social interaction, bonding and romantic love, among other functions.
Kogan is quick to point our that having the AA or AG instead of the GG genotype does not mark a person as unsympathetic.
“What ultimately makes us kind and cooperative is a mixture of numerous genetic and non-genetic factors. No one gene is doing the trick. Instead, each of these many forces is a thread pulling a person in one direction or another, and the oxytocin receptor gene is one of these threads,” Kogan said.
A report on the current study is found in the online issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.