Genetic Link Found Between Anxiety And Prosocial Behavior
October 16, 2013

Genetic Link Found Between Anxiety And Prosocial Behavior

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A person’s willingness to volunteer and help others could be influenced by a gene that also impacts his or her level of social anxiety, according to research published in September’s edition of the journal Social Neuroscience.

The paper, which the authors believe is the first to describe this particular pathway, explained that prosocial behavior is related to the same gene that predisposes certain men and women to anxiety disorders. Helping those people cope with that anxiety could ultimately result in an increase in their prosocial behaviors.

“Prosocial behavior is linked closely to strong social skills and is considered a marker of individuals’ health and well-being,” said Gustavo Carlo, a professor at the University of Missouri College of Human Environmental Sciences. “Social people are more likely to be healthier, excel academically, experience career success and develop deeper interpersonal relationships that may help alleviate stress.”

He and fellow study author Scott Stoltenberg, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, explained that the gene, officially identified as the 5-HTTLPR triallelic genotype, has an effect on the amygdala, a region of the brain that plays a role in emotional reactions such as fear. They found that people with the recessive version of the gene were more likely to take risks socially and help others.

“Previous research has shown that the brain’s serotonin neurotransmitter system plays an important role in regulating emotions,” Stoltenberg said in a statement. “Our findings suggest that individual differences in social anxiety levels are influenced by this serotonin system gene and that these differences help to partially explain why some people are more likely than others to behave prosocially.”

He added that this type of research helps provide insight into how biological factors can influence the way that people interact with one another. Their study builds upon previous research that found an association between prosocial behaviors and genes that help control a person’s serotonin neurotransmitter system. They looked to find out whether or not anxiety was a component of the mechanism through which 5-HTTLPR impacts social behavior.

As part of the study, nearly 400 undergraduate students took part in a computerized survey designed to gauge both their anxiety levels and their proclivity towards prosocial behavior. Cheek swabs for genetic testing were also provided to Carlo, Stoltenberg and their colleagues.

Since their research further links prosocial behavior to genetically-caused anxiety, the investigators suggest that helping nervous men and women deal with their anxiety through counseling, medication, and other targeted efforts could also make them more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors, like volunteering for charitable organizations.

“This finding suggests that genetic variation influences the extent to which people weigh self (and genetic) preservation concerns when making decisions about whether or not to help others,” the authors wrote in the study. They added that the methods they used could lay the foundation for analysis of the genetic pathways for morality, compassion, empathy and other psychological traits.