Have Researchers Discovered The Niceness Gene?
April 11, 2012

Have Researchers Discovered The Niceness Gene?

A person's DNA may play a key role in whether or not they are nice, kind and generous, claim the authors of a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.

The research, which was led by University at Buffalo psychologist Michel Poulin, focuses on two hormones -- oxytocin and vasopressin -- which can "inspire feelings of love and generosity when they flood our brains," according to Life's Little Mysteries Staff Writer Natalie Wolchover.

These hormones attach to different types of the molecules known as receptors and wind up bound to neurons, Wolchover explains, and Poulin and his colleagues have discovered that a person with one type of receptor is more likely to be a nice person than those who have other versions.

According to an April 9 University of Buffalo press release, Poulin and his colleagues surveyed study participants via the Internet in regards to several different topics, including civic responsibility, their fellow men and women, charitable activities, and the world in general.

They posed such questions as to whether or not people had a duty to report crimes or pay taxes, whether or not they participated in charitable activities, whether or not people were basically good, and whether the world as a whole was more good or evil.

Afterwards, they were asked for a saliva sample for DNA analysis -- which 711 of them agreed to provide -- so that Poulin's team could study which type of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors each had. Those who tended to see the world and other people in a negative light were found to still be "nice, dutiful and charitable" if they had the versions of the receptor genes that had been linked with niceness, Wolchover said.

"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 said, according to the staff of the website TG Daily. "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."

"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," he continued.

"We aren't saying we've found the niceness gene," the psychologist concluded. "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."

Poulin's co-authors on the study, which is entitled "The Neurogenics of Niceness," were Anneke Buffone, also of the University of Buffalo, and E. Alison Holman of the University of California, Irvine.