The neurogenics of niceness: Study finds peoples' relative niceness may reside in their genes

April 10, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- It turns out that the milk of human kindness is evoked by something besides mom's good example.

Research by psychologists at the University at Buffalo and the University of California, Irvine, has found that at least part of the reason some people are kind and generous is because their genes nudge them toward it.

Michel Poulin, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at UB, is the principal author of the study "The Neurogenics of Niceness," published in this month in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for .

The study, co-authored by Anneke Buffone of UB and E. Alison Holman of the University of California, Irvine, looked at the behavior of study 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 and vasopressin to the way we treat one another, Poulin says.

In fact, they are known to make us nicer people, at least in . Oxytocin promotes , for example, and in the lab, subjects exposed to the hormone demonstrate greater . An article in the usually staid even used the terms "love drug" and "cuddle chemical" to describe oxytocin, Poulin points out.

Poulin says this 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 pro-social behavior: urge to give to charity, for instance, or to more readily participate in such civic endeavors as paying taxes, reporting crime, giving blood or sitting on juries.

He explains that hormones work by binding to our cells through receptors that come in different forms. 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. Study subjects took part in 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, like giving blood, working for charity or going to PTA meetings.

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 says.

"Specifically, study participants who found the world threatening were less likely to help others -- unless they had versions of the that are generally associated with niceness," he says.

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

"The fact that the predicted behavior only in combination with people's experiences and feelings about the world isn't surprising," Poulin says, "because most connections between DNA and 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 says.

"We aren't saying we've found the niceness gene," he adds. "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."

Explore further: The dark side of Oxytocin

Related Stories

The dark side of Oxytocin

August 1, 2011
For a hormone, oxytocin is pretty famous. It’s the “cuddle chemical”—the hormone that helps mothers bond with their babies. Salespeople can buy oxytocin spray on the internet, to make their clients trust ...

Can one model the social deficits of autism and schizophrenia in animals?

May 5, 2011
5 May 2011 - The use of animal models to study human disease is essential to help advance our understanding of disease and to develop new therapeutic treatments.

Psychologists discover a gene's link to optimism, self-esteem

September 14, 2011
(PhysOrg.com) -- UCLA life scientists have identified for the first time a particlular gene's link to optimism, self-esteem and "mastery," the belief that one has control over one's own life -- three critical psychological ...

Recommended for you

Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us

October 19, 2017
Snakes and spiders evoke fear and disgust in many people, even in developed countries where hardly anybody comes into contact with them. Until now, there has been debate about whether this aversion is innate or learnt. Scientists ...

Inflamed support cells appear to contribute to some kinds of autism

October 18, 2017
Modeling the interplay between neurons and astrocytes derived from children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Brazil, say innate ...

Study suggests psychedelic drugs could reduce criminal behavior

October 18, 2017
Classic psychedelics such as psilocybin (often called magic mushrooms), LSD and mescaline (found in peyote) are associated with a decreased likelihood of antisocial criminal behavior, according to new research from investigators ...

Taking probiotics may reduce postnatal depression

October 18, 2017
Researchers from the University of Auckland and Otago have found evidence that a probiotic given in pregnancy can help prevent or treat symptoms of postnatal depression and anxiety.

Schizophrenia disrupts the brain's entire communication system, researchers say

October 17, 2017
Some 40 years since CT scans first revealed abnormalities in the brains of schizophrenia patients, international scientists say the disorder is a systemic disruption to the brain's entire communication system.

Before assigning responsibility, our minds simulate alternative outcomes, study shows

October 17, 2017
How do people assign a cause to events they witness? Some philosophers have suggested that people determine responsibility for a particular outcome by imagining what would have happened if a suspected cause had not intervened.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.