In America the University of California, Berkeley has carried out a study (Thin-slicing study of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene and the evaluation and expression of the prosocial disposition) on the body’s receptor gene oxytocin; a gene commonly associated with bonding, empathy expressions of love.

They found that we are hardwired to recognise empathetic strangers almost immediately. This aids us in identifying people who will help us if we are in need. Unconsciously we are also drawn to these people as they are recognised as having strong paternal instincts.

Lead author of the study, Aleksandr Kogan said “Over the past five to seven years, researchers have been exploring how genetics affect emotions. What we’re learning is that, to a certain extent, we have a genetic basis that supports a lot of the processes that make us nice.”

This ‘kindness’ gene as it is now being called can enhance pro-social behaviour in people.

“We’ve known that genotype can influence personality, but we’d only ever studied what goes on inside a person — things like behavioural scales and heart-rate measurements,” says Serena Rodrigues Saturn, Ph.D., a senior author of the study. “This is the first time anyone has observed how different genotypes manifest themselves in behaviours that complete strangers can pick up on.”

The study took 23 people who had already been identified as GG (10 people), AG (10 people) or AA (3 people) genotypes for the rs53576 DNA sequence of the oxytocins receptor (OXTR) gene. It is interesting to note that the majority of people had at least one G Allele. This would suggest that people are naturally predisposed to being compassionate and benevolent to each other.

They were then filmed as they listened to someone telling them about a time of suffering or hardship in their lives.

It was identified that people who carry two copies of the G Allele are usually more empathetic and caring. So those who have the GG genotypes are ‘kind-hearted’ and those with the AA genotype tend to be less sensitive to other’s feelings.

Observers watched 20 seconds of the footage with the volume down and they were then asked to identify those people they thought were most empathetic.  In the majority of cases the observers were able to identify which of the listeners had the “kindness gene”.

The Study concluded that “individual differences in rs53576 are associated with behavioral manifestations of prosociality, which ultimately guide the judgments others make about the individual.” The researchers added that “even slight genetic variation may have tangible impact on people’s behaviour, and that these behavioural differences are quickly noticed by others.”

“The oxytocin receptor gene in particular has become of great interest because a select number of studies suggest that it is related to how pro-social people view themselves,” Professor Kogan said.

Writer Helen Splarn. Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha.
Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. AP