Friday, November 25, 2011

A Gene for Empathy?

We hope you had a great Thanksgiving yesterday, I know I ate more than my share of pumpkin pie and apple pie! 

Today, we have another awesome guest post by a new guest blogger, Alex Kogan. Alex is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Toronto, Mississauga and he agreed to write a post about a recent article he had published that has received a lot of media attention (see here, here, here and here for just a few examples). 

A gene for empathy?
Last week, my colleagues and I reported a seemingly startling finding: People who had two copies of G version of the oxytocin receptor gene were seen as more trustworthy, compassionate, and kind by complete strangers on the basis of only 20 seconds than people who had at least one copy of the A version of the gene. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide—a chemical messenger of sorts—in our brains that has been linked to empathy, sacrifice, and trust. Oxytocin has also been linked more recently to darker aspects of human nature as well, such as jealousy and boasting, suggesting that the role of oxytocin is much more general than simply a “love” messenger. The way oxytocin operates is through the usage of a specific receptor in the brain—and the oxytocin receptor gene, as the name would suggest, codes for this receptor. Our study built on roughly a dozen studies that have shown a similar effect in terms of how people view themselves. Media reports on our study triumphantly reported that the “empathy gene”, “cuddle gene”, or the “jerk gene” had been found. Science had unlocked the genetics behind kindness.

Or had it?

The quick answer is absolutely not. But why not? To a certain extent, it is true that genes are ultimately involved in making us kind—after all, humans are biological creatures (i.e. we are not rocks), and genes provide the basic building blocks of our biological hardware. But genetic involvement in kindness is extremely complex—many, many genes are involved in creating all the components of our brains and bodies that are involved in kindness. Furthermore, experiences, environmental situations, and random chance are all very important factors that influence who we are and how we behave. Any given gene is merely one thread pulling us along in the direction of being kind or not so kind; there are many other threads—both other genes and non-genetic factors—that are also very much involved. All these different forces ultimately come together in a very intricate way to create the people that we are. 

What this means is that if a person has two copies of the G version of the oxytocin receptor gene, it doesn’t automatically make them a saint—they might still be a terrible person. Similarly, people with even two copies of the A version of the gene are not necessarily psychopaths—they might be some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. What our findings suggest is that the oxytocin receptor gene appears to be involved in the underlying biological processes that promote kindness. But one gene can tell us little about how a specific person will behave or what their personality will be like; there are simply too many other factors in play. 

What do you think about Alex's findings? Do you think the media overplayed his results? Do you like media coverage about scientific findings or do you find it misleading? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!

The article:
Kogan A, Saslow LR, Impett EA, Oveis C, Keltner D, & Rodrigues Saturn S (2011). Thin-slicing study of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene and the evaluation and expression of the prosocial disposition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 22084107

 Alex is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto Mississauga. His research focuses on the biological, psychological, and cultural underpinnings of prosociality and positive emotions.  


  1. I'm a postdoctoral fellow also, and I work on HIV vaccine design. One day my mom called me and said: "You've been scooped!" She was all worried because the media in Europe had reported a new HIV vaccine. I Googled and found the source: an article in some UK newspaper. I don't want to be more specific because I hate to make accusations of any sort (we all do our jobs as best as we can!), but anyways, the title read something like "HIV will be reduced to nothing more than a herpes infection" and somewhere down in the text it said that vaccinated individuals had developed "some kind of immune response." The article had great resonance and spread from the UK to Spain and Italy. I called my mom and told her to relax, that I wasn't losing my job any time soon.

    Turns out, the researchers had used a herpes-type of virus as vector for the vaccine (hence the title). Also, ANY kind of vaccine will develop some kind of immune response (doh!), the issue is WHAT kind of response it elicits and is it enough to fend off the infection.

    All this to say, yes, the media plays up a lot of stuff. Can you blame them? I personally can't, even though I do get annoyed. But in high school I was a summer intern for the local newspaper doing these kind of reports and often an editor will send you off to cover something you haven't got the slightest idea what it is about, and on top of that you're given a deadline and you have to whip out 500 words without really knowing what you're talking about.

    Rather than blaming the media, I think it is our role as scientists to make our voice heard and help non-science people put things in perspective, just like Alex did here. I also found the reaction to Alex's paper (and the sample size issue) a bit over-played. As scientists, we should be fully aware of all the caveats. The media aren't, but we are, and that's why we have discussion sections in our papers. I never criticize a paper from fellow scientists because their data is less than perfect. I know how hard is to get the money, the lab equipment and the data itself. Often we set off with grand plans and all you end up with is a handful of sequences. Do you toss them in the trash because you only got tens instead of hundreds or do you try and get the best out of it? So long as you discuss all the caveats in the paper, it's worth putting it out there. Maybe you've found nothing, or maybe you just scraped the tip of the iceberg. But unless you put it out there we'll never know.

  2. EEGiori,

    Thanks for the great insights! I definitely would prefer that the media reports our findings than ignores them... I love to see science actually find its way to the general public (in fact, that was our motivation behind starting this blog!). But I do think its important not to sensationalize findings too much or people might start to question the veracity of science when they don't see the expected results play out every time in their own lives.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. It's always interesting to see information about possible links between genetics and personality traits, although these seeming 'nature' traits are inevitability influenced by 'nurture.' Keep up the study of these links.