Are we kind because of our experiences or because we simply can’t help it? According to a recent study, some of us are hardwired to be kind and empathetic regardless of the situation we are in.

Researchers studied 348 Americans with European ancestry to learn about the role genetics plays when it comes to kindness. They asked the participants how strongly they agreed with statements like "Human nature is basically good" and "There is more good in the world than bad" to find out how they viewed the world. As measures of kindness, the volunteers were also questioned about their involvement in charitable and civic acts.

Most importantly, the authors looked at genes that were significant to the study. Past research has shown that three genes are linked to people's social behavior and altruism. The first one affects the brain receptor for oxytocin, the "cuddle chemical" linked to forming close relationships with loved ones. It comes in three variants: A/A, G/G, and A/G. The A/A variant has been linked to increased risk in social anxiety and autism, the G/G variant is associated with empathy and maternal sensitivity, and the A/G variant falls somewhere in between.

The two remaining genes affect the receptor for vasopressin, a hormone that also affects social connections. Both genes come in three versions: short/short, short/long, and long/long. Those with longer versions of the genes are more empathetic and have less social anxiety.

Upon analysis of the results, researchers realized that there was a connection between people’s views of the world, their tendency to perform charitable and civic acts, and their gene variants. Participants who viewed the world as a scary place were less likely to be charitable if they possessed the A/A or A/G variant of the first gene. Meanwhile, those who had one or two short variants of the other two genes tended to see the world as an unsafe place and were less committed to civic acts.

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Researchers discovered that at least 50 percent of the people they tested had the highly altruistic G/G variant, while only 7 percent had the A/A variant. Apparently, the study authors noted, the gene is only responsible for a small variation in our behavior. But genetics are only one factor when considering personality and values; ultimately, our actions and their subsequent consequences still depend on the choices we make.


(Photo by aus_chick via Flickr Creative Commons)

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