In search of the niceness gene

A recent study has determined that genes may play a major role in such human characteristics as kindness and generosity.

Indeed, researchers at Buffalo University and the University of California(Irvine) analyzed the behavior of study subjects with versions of receptor genes for two hormones that – in laboratory and close relationship research – are associated with niceness.

According to Professor Michel Poulin, previous laboratory studies have linked the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin to the way humans treat one another.

“In fact, they are known to make us nicer people, at least in close relationships,” Poulin explained. “Oxytocin promotes maternal behavior, for example, and in the lab, subjects exposed to the hormone demonstrate greater sociability.”

The latest study attempted to apply previous findings to social behaviors on a larger scale in an effort to determine if the above-mentioned chemicals play a role in provoking other forms of pro-social behavior. 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 confirmed. “Specifically, study participants who found the world threatening were less likely to help others – unless they had versions of the receptor genes that are generally associated with niceness.

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

“The fact that the genes predicted behavior only in combination with people’s experiences and feelings about the world isn’t surprising, simply because most connections between DNA and social behavior 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.”

However, Poulin was quick to emphasize that researchers haven’t yet managed to identify and isolate a single “niceness gene.”

“[However], 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,” he added.