I Was Born This Way

Nice to See You - Sticker - Bruce ForsythI have trouble being mean. It’s next to impossible to not be nice. Sure, I get in bad moods and can be snippy at times, but overall I’m a nice fellow, you know, finishing last in all. And I’m okay with that most of the time, especially now that I’ve learned I was born this way.

According to psychologists at the University at Buffalo (UB) and the University of California, Irvine, a reason some people are nice is because of their genes. The study “The Neurogenics of Niceness,” appearsthis month in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The researchers studied the behavior of subjects who have versions of receptor genes for two hormones (oxytocin and vasopressin) that are associated with niceness and to find out if these chemicals nudge other forms of pro-social behavior in us.

Subjects were surveyed as to their attitudes toward civic duty, other people and the world in general, and about their charitable activities. Study subjects took part in an Internet survey with questions about civic duty, such as whether people have a duty to report a crime or pay taxes; how they feel about the world, such as whether people are basically good or whether the world is more good than bad; and about their own charitable activities, like giving blood, working for charity or going to PTA meetings.

Of those surveyed, 711 subjects provided a sample of saliva for DNA analysis, which showed what form they had of the oxytocin and vasopressin receptors.

“The study found that these genes combined with people’s perceptions of the world as a more or less threatening place to predict generosity,” said Michel Poulin, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at UB. “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.”

These “nicer” versions of the genes, Poulin says, “allow you to overcome feelings of the world being threatening and help other people in spite of those fears.”

“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 said. “We aren’t saying we’ve found the niceness gene. 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.”

(Story materials provided by the University at Buffalo.)

(Image via Flickr: Jason Liebig / Creative Commons)

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