November 14, 2011
Oxytocin Receptor Variant Boosts Empathy

Does someone choose to be understanding and sympathetic? Or do genetic variants for an oxytocin receptor in the brain make people more or less empathetic in very easily recognizable ways? Read below and guess which variants of the oxytocin receptor gene you carry.

CORVALLIS, Ore. Scientists have discovered that a gene that influences empathy, parental sensitivity and sociability is so powerful that even strangers observing 20 seconds of silent video identified people with a particular genetic variation to be more caring and trusting.

In the study, 23 romantic couples were videotaped while one of the partners described a time of suffering in their lives. The other half of the couple and their physical, non-verbal reactions were the focal point of the study. Groups of complete strangers viewed the videos. The observers were asked to rate the person on traits such as how kind, trustworthy, and caring they thought the person was, based on just 20 seconds of silent video.

"Our findings suggest even slight genetic variation may have tangible impact on people's behavior, and that these behavioral differences are quickly noticed by others," said Aleksandr Kogan, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and the study's lead author.

The study builds on previous research conducted by Sarina Rodrigues Saturn, an assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University. In that study, Saturn and her colleagues linked a genetic variation that affects hormone/neurotransmitter oxytocin's receptor to empathy and stress reactivity. Saturn is senior author on the new study, which is in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The standard question I always wonder when I read reports about genes causing cognitive differences: Which genetic variants will people choose for their offspring when they become able to make such choices? Will the world become a more or less empathetic place once people can choose which genes their kids can get? Will humanity diverge into very empathetic and very not empathetic groups? Will the empathetic empathize even with the turbo unempathetic?

Perhaps the GGs and AAs should form their own social media social circles.

"It was amazing to see how the data aligned so strongly by genotype," Saturn said. "It makes sense that a gene crucial for social processing would yield these findings; other studies have shown that people are good at judging people at a distance and first impressions really make an impact."

Before the videos were recorded, the scientists tested the couples and identified their genotype as GG, AG, or AA. Individuals homozygous for the G allele (carrying two copies of the G version of the gene) of the oxytocin receptor tend to be more "prosocial," defined by researchers as the ability to behave in a way that benefits another person. In contrast, the carriers of the A version of the gene (AG or AA genotypes) tend to have a higher risk of autism, as well as self-reported lower levels of positive emotions, empathy and parental sensitivity.

The carriers of the AA variants are least trusted.

Oxytocin has already been significantly linked with social affiliation and reduction in stress. It is a peptide made in the hypothalamus and has targets all over the body and the brain. It is best known for its role in female reproduction and is associated with social recognition, pair bonding, dampening negative emotional responses, trust and love.

Out of the 10 people who were marked by the neutral observer as "most prosocial, six carried the GG genotype associated with the oxytocin receptor; of the 10 people who were marked as "least trusted," nine were carriers of the A version of the gene. The people carrying an A version of the gene were viewed as less kind, trustworthy and caring toward their partners in the video.

Possibly the neutral observers are also responding to genetic variants of other genes that tested for in this study.

Imagine you are hiring nurses. Do you want AA or GG nurses? I'm thinking GG since patients want to feel their nurses care about their well-being. On the other hand, kindness is probably a risk factor for a prison guard and probably isn't a desirable trait in a loan officer either.

Does anyone know whether any of the the existing genetic testing services test this gene? For example, does

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 November 14 09:49 PM  Brain Genetics


Comments
ribock said at November 16, 2011 5:07 AM:

If the gene in question is OXTR then 23andme test for it. I am GG.

Marsili.us said at November 16, 2011 1:17 PM:

23andMe used to test for 24 single nucleotide polymorphisms within OXTR and, according to a remark I just read in a forum, has begun testing for some 40 SNPs in that gene. I've spent a little time trying to learn which SNP is at issue here, but have not yet turned up the information.

Marsili.us said at November 16, 2011 1:26 PM:

Here is a link to an abstract of the paper:

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/11/08/1112658108

The SNP is rs53576, one that is included in 23andMe's tests.

Lono said at November 17, 2011 9:40 AM:

GG for the win 'bitches!

Seriously though - I think you are correct Randall - there may be a time in the near future when groups of GG's and AA's come into real political conflict. I personally am trying to recruit GG's in Mensa to help them network together effectively and form pro-social organizations in their local communities. Right now Mensa - like many parts of society - is largely dominated by AA and AG phenotypes.

Empathetic people, like myself, certainly care for those who lack empathy - but many, again like myself, see them as disabled - and in need of institutionalization in some cases - until a cure or therapy can be found.

I think we all understand why evolution likely favors AA "selfish" phenotypes - but if we are to make it too the next level of civilization we need to take control of our own destiny - as a species - and begin to promote leaders who are both pro-social and progressive problem solvers.

Randall Parker said at November 19, 2011 9:38 PM:

Lono,

I want to see more evidence for the adaptive advantages of each genotype and phenotype. I bet AA's make better optimizers of business processes because their emotions don't hold them back as much from firing deadwood and cutting lines of business that offer poor returns on capital.

Lono said at November 20, 2011 8:14 AM:

Randall,

I think that is a real concern and I would love to see a study investigating that further. I think it is definitely worth pursuing.

I also suspect there may be a significant range of empathetic potential even among those who have the AA phenotype.

Ally said at November 20, 2011 7:01 PM:

Ok I am AG and although I see where the study relates the ability to show expression of empathy, I don't quite understand the whole selfish/emotionless thing. While AAs and AGs might be less social (making them far better at working on a project which could provide untold benefit to mankind instead of attending the party on Saturday night), I think most of them tend to be the antithesis of what it really means to be lacking in empathy, that is: the sociopath. Sociopaths can be charming and appear to be the most outwardly empathetic while tricking others into doing their bidding. I think of the AGs and AAs not as lacking in empathy but the ability to lie or mimick as well as the rest of the population. I feel other peoples problems very deeply, but sometimes if someone feels sad, I don't feel I should add to their burden of sadness by engaging in the same outward behavior. In fact it almost seems too real to me already. I hate to see people in pain. That's why I like to find solutions to common problems, even if I know no one will have any idea who I am or what I have tried to do for my fellow man. When's the last time you thanked an engineer after you survived a car crash or used something that makes your life easier everyday? Food for thought.

Ally said at November 20, 2011 7:30 PM:

BTW Lono, I do not see myself as disabled in any way. If I were, I should see some kind of "help" from someone (the government, charitable organizations, etc.). Interestingly, I donate far more to both of the aforementioned than they do to me. I think this makes me superiorly-abled at least in the area of self-reliance and aptitude for really helping others. I suspect that there are a number of GG people who believe us to be defective and enjoy treating us in this manner. My social skills aren't the best, though I try. My oratory skills are lacking. I am a horrible debater when personally confronted by those who see me as 'lesser.' I don't have an ounce of acerbic wit to my name. But I do have feelings and I know when someone appears to be well-liked but for some reason, to me, seems full of hubris. Also, I know when I'm being patronized. Maybe that's why socializing just doesn't seem as fun for me as it does to others. Sorry, I think maybe I got a bit emotional in this reponse.

Lono said at November 21, 2011 7:58 AM:

Ally,

I believe AG phenotypes likely have a large empathetic potential - for all I currently know I could be AG myself.

I really mean that people with empathetic intelligence tend to see people with only autistic-like intelligence as unfortunately disabled - since they cannot connect with others in a natural, empathetic, way. This includes both sociopaths and those who have aspergers - although I have developed and still have many good friendships with those who have aspergers but I have never been able to establish a healthy relationship with any sociopath I have known.

There are medical treatments being tested on extreme sociopaths and psychopaths in the prison system right now that actually have great potential in returning healthy levels of empathy to those who are clearly afflicted with the AA phenotype. I think it would be interesting to see why some AA phenotypes are socio/psychopathic while others are merely self oriented d-bags.

(I have a few childhood friends who likely have the AA phenotype but who are imho absolutely not sociopaths)

Randall wisely pointed out a potential danger of having the GG phenotype - and I think it would be interesting to investigate this further. I personally know a very empathetic Texas Billionaire who runs a very successful multinational company while making sure his employees are well taken care of. At the same time I presently work for another famous Billionaire who was the very model for Gordon Gekko - a clear AA phenotype - and the company I work for is far less successful in every way and treats its employees quite poorly. This makes me wonder if the AA phenotype - while potentially able to make the hard choices more decisively - may be unable to make the ethical choices necessary for the long term - and optimized - success of their business.

John B said at October 31, 2012 1:51 PM:

I realise this thread is nearly a year old, but I thought some of you might be interested from someone who is AA.

I found out a few months ago, after stumbling upon the oxytocin receptor page on SNPedia; I had got my test results from 23andMe a few months before that. I read some of the research, and I felt pretty devastated. I started to wonder: am I really uncaring? What do other people really think of me? Will I be a bad parent? Is this 'unfixable'?

What made things worse is that I had recently gained entry to medical school. I studied law as an undergraduate and did well (both law and medicine are undergraduate degrees in my country), but I had become completely disillusioned by the practice of law, and the limited scope for actually making a positive impact on peoples' lives. I had always enjoyed studying biology and had done lifesaving and first aid, and started to seriously consider whether a career in emergency medicine could be the career for me. I read everything I could get my hands on and watched all the documentaries I could find. The turning point was when I was in work one day (I worked at a restaurant), and someone started choking on their food, completely unable to breathe. I executed what I had practiced in first aid perfectly, and saved the man from asphyxiating. It remains one of the most satisfying things I've ever done.

So when I found out that I was AA, I really began to have doubts about becoming a doctor - ask most people what qualities they want their doctor to have, and empathy won't be far from the top of the list. If I was really just a sociopath, maybe sticking with law would be the better option.

As I read more about GG v AG v GG however, the self-reproach gave way to self-understanding. AAs are less good at reading social queues, and children who are less good at reading social queues are more likely to be bullied, which I was. GGs tend to be more optimistic and think they are in control of their lives - I'm neither of these - and interestingly, most people are GG/GA and most people have and optimism and mastery bias. I'm convinced it was my more realistic way of seeing myself and the world around me that inspired me to do something that I knew would really help people. I explained the three variants to some of my close friends, and asked them what type they thought I was. All said they thought I was AA. This was, in a way, a wakeup call and started me on a process of reflection of how I could become a more caring, empathetic friend.

If I could trade AA for GG tomorrow I would. While most GG and AG types will never experience first-hand what it's like to be AA, I have probably experienced what it's like to be GG; when I took MDMA for the first time (whatever you think of me for that), for the week after I had hugely increased empathy levels, and I'd happily give up 10 or even 20 years of my life to if I could have that level of empathy for the rest of my days. But alas, I don't have the option.

To conclude, be careful what you say about AAs. Many of them feel bad enough about themselves as it is without being divided into sociopaths and psychopaths on the one hand, and 'self-oirentated d bags' on the other. Some of us try very hard to improve socially (and not just for our own benefit, but for those we are care about as well). And while you might not want us as your family doctor, you could be grateful for one day for the ER doctor who is able to remain detached enough to deal with a succession of life-threatening injuries and death.

Sabine said at January 22, 2018 11:30 AM:

Interesting discussion, but I was quite shocked about the equation of AA genotype with psychopaths and sociopaths v just selfish people. Hello, where's the evidence for this? Having less fluid social skills and ability to instantly bond and express empathy doesn't equate to being automatically selfish and uncaring, or unemotional. Until these things are more thoroughly understood and reearched, maybe we should be a bit more careful about coming up with moral theories. If anything, AA's and AG's may have a disadvantage in getting to the top, as John B has pointed out. As for doctors, ambitious and tough-minded types seem to self-select, regardless of the genetic basis of this - we all know or have heard about the stereotypical doc with poor bedside manner, and in the case of surgeons, this may be a necessary trait to be able to cut into someone?

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