The Kindness of Strangers: Caring, Trust Linked to Genetic Variation

Medical Xpress, November 14, 2011

Scientists have discovered that a gene that influences empathy, parental sensitivity and sociability is so powerful that even strangers observing 20 seconds of silent video identified people with a particular genetic variation to be more caring and trusting.

In the study, 23 romantic couples were videotaped while one of the partners described a time of suffering in their lives. The other half of the couple and their physical, non-verbal reactions were the focal point of the study. Groups of complete strangers viewed the videos. The observers were asked to rate the person on traits such as how kind, trustworthy, and caring they thought the person was, based on just 20 seconds of silent video.

“Our findings suggest even slight genetic variation may have tangible impact on people’s behavior, and that these behavioral differences are quickly noticed by others,” said Aleksandr Kogan, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and the study’s lead author.

The study builds on previous research conducted by Sarina Rodrigues Saturn, an assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University. In that study, Saturn and her colleagues linked a genetic variation that affects hormone/neurotransmitter oxytocin’s receptor to empathy and stress reactivity. Saturn is senior author on the new study, which is in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“It was amazing to see how the data aligned so strongly by genotype,” Saturn said. “It makes sense that a gene crucial for social processing would yield these findings; other studies have shown that people are good at judging people at a distance and first impressions really make an impact.”

Before the videos were recorded, the scientists tested the couples and identified their genotype as GG, AG, or AA. Individuals homozygous for the G allele (carrying two copies of the G version of the gene) of the oxytocin receptor tend to be more “prosocial,” defined by researchers as the ability to behave in a way that benefits another person. In contrast, the carriers of the A version of the gene (AG or AA genotypes) tend to have a higher risk of autism, as well as self-reported lower levels of positive emotions, empathy and parental sensitivity.

Oxytocin has already been significantly linked with social affiliation and reduction in stress. It is a peptide made in the hypothalamus and has targets all over the body and the brain. It is best known for its role in female reproduction and is associated with social recognition, pair bonding, dampening negative emotional responses, trust and love.

Out of the 10 people who were marked by the neutral observer as “most prosocial, six carried the GG genotype associated with the oxytocin receptor; of the 10 people who were marked as “least trusted,” nine were carriers of the A version of the gene. The people carrying an A version of the gene were viewed as less kind, trustworthy and caring toward their partners in the video.

“The oxytocin receptor gene in particular has become of great interest because a select number of studies suggest that it is related to how prosocial people view themselves,” Kogan said. “Our study asked the question of whether these differences manifest themselves in behaviors that are quickly detectable by strangers, and it turns out they did.”

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  • mynameisjoe

    Very interesting study. Too bad we will never see one like this dealing with race differences. I would be willing to bet that there are racial differences in levels of empathy with the White race being the most empathetic. For now all we have is direct observation which clearly indicates Whites are the most empathetic. Blacks the least. Think crime stats.

  • sheila

    Very interesting…thanks for posting this article… it seems oxytocin is especially important for bonding purposes and released during sexual activity/intercourse…and perhaps more apparent in females with regard to the *bonding process* as opposed to the male partner…which leads one to consider the bonding aspect of social behavior…that is to say it may explain why women are more likely to bond with their male sexual partner than are men…men apparently experience less of the hormone during sex,(obviously due to the throw-back nature of physical reproduction…nature’s natural need to procreate, reproduce, or die out)thus are less likely to be inclined to *bond* with the female desiring partership…females being more likely to practice monogamy, males less so (throw back again…more partners, more regeneration of the species),so could it be possible, looking at this in a *racial* sense, that black males are less likely to form lasting relationships with their sexual partners, leading to multiple sexual partners, leading to to question:

    “Who my baby daddy is?”

    All because they *might* have very little or almost none of this *bonding* hormone?

    I mean IF it could be discovered that black males actually experience, during sex, even less of the bonding hormone oxytocin than white men, or Asians…what might that imply?

    Wouldn’t that also explain why black males tend to not only have so many offspring by multiple partners but less likely to stick around to raise them?

    Since it has long been acknowledged that in the black sub-culture (perhaps it is becoming America’s dominant culture?…consider music, language arts, politics in present pop-culture-society) the *family* has been one identified as being *matriarchal* as opposed to the *patrichal* one of the white race, and all that that entails…might it make sense that a physical component such as *oxytocin* may have more to do with the inability to bond within black families (male bonding of mate and offspring of a lasting nature)than the traditional explanation having to do with the slave-master selling off his slaves thus robbing the black slave the right to remain with his wife/mate and offspring also preventing the development of a tradition of black male patriarchy (black man as important in his role as family provider etc?)…in other words the mental, emotional, physical, psychological, historical destruction of the black male within his own socio-domestic sphere, at the hands of the evil white race via slavery’s role in America’s past, would be unsound from a physical scientific point of view…that is, IF conditions were favorable for that view.

    I mean maybe the white race did lord it over the African black slaves, true enough. Yeah, why not the notion that it hurt the black man’s role in his domestic affairs, that’s reasonable to a point.

    But to continue to use that old theory to continue to blame the white race for the ills of the blacks in America may be all wrong…and certainly and totally improper to suggest the old theory applies in modern times…

    The possible lack or deficieny of oxytocin produced or experienced by the black male during sexual intercourse and the implications of that would be worth studying…or would it?

    I mean… it is offered up in AR’s own writngs on studies carried out comparing the different levels of the male hormone testosterone between the races and how that corrolates to violent behavior…and no doubt the women in prisons for violent acts may well have higher levels of testosterone than average women or the non-prison population of women.

    So here’s another hormone, and another clinical*opportunity*!