21 November 2011
ByAppeared in BioNews 634
Variations in a single gene may have considerable impact on whether people come across as trustworthy and kind, scientists say. Furthermore, the snap judgments we make about people's kindness after only a brief contact may accurately correspond to whether or not they possess the more 'social' gene variant.
The gene in question codes for a receptor for the oxytocin hormone. Oxytocin is often described as the 'cuddle chemical' and seems to play a role in the development of social skills as well as enhancing bonding between mother and baby.
In new research by scientists at the University of California, volunteers were shown silent 20-second videos of people listening to stories of personal hardship. The volunteers were then asked to rate these people on how trustworthy, caring and kind they appeared.
The listeners who got the highest ratings, it turned out, possess a particular variation of the oxytocin receptor gene known as the GG genotype. At the other end of the scale, nine of the 10 least trusted listeners (23 people were filmed) had one of the other two variants – AG or AA.
Those with the GG variation used more non-verbal empathetic gestures, such as smiling and nodding, when listening. The researchers suggest that it is this that led observers to assume they would be less caring. Previous studies have shown that people possessing the GG phenotype report higher levels of empathy and positive emotions and are at a lower risk of autism.
In a statement, the researchers claim that their findings 'pave the way for genetic therapies for people who are not innately sympathetic'.
However, later on in the same text lead author Aleksandr Kogan says: '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'.