Strangers Can Spot Genetic Disposition For Empathy

Reporting in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers write that complete strangers are capable of spotting individuals with a genetic predisposition to empathy and sociable behavior. Author Sarina Saturn discusses the study, and how sociability has evolved across cultures.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Think of a time a close friend shared some bad news with you - maybe the death of a parent or a friend. How did you respond? A hug, lots of eye contact. Where did that empathy come from? When we share emotions with others, recognizing a friend's sadness, for example, how much of that behavior is dictated by our genes, and how much do we learn from our culture, from those around us, from being exposed to us our whole lives? Could some cultures even be biologically wired to show less empathy than others?

Those are the sorts of questions my next guest is trying to answer, and her latest study suggests genes do play an important role. Observers in her study were able to tell what a stranger's genetic disposition for empathy was just by watching a few seconds of a silent video clip of them. Joining me now to talk more about it is Sarina Rodrigues-Saturn, assistant professor in the department of psychology at Oregon State University in Corvallis. She's one of the authors of that study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DR. SARINA RODRIGUES-SATURN, OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY: Thank you so much. A pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you for joining us. Tell us exactly what the people were looking at in that study.

DR. SARINA RODRIGUES-SATURN, OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY: All right. So basically, we had a study of couples, romantic couples discussing a time of suffering in their lives, and we showed our participants silent video clips of the listener how they are behaving when they are hearing their partner talk about these things. And we had our participants rate how prosocial, how much they seemed to care and their various gestures to relay their caring and sympathy.

FLATOW: And then, how did you follow up to find out about whether this was hardwired into them or something to be learned?

UNIVERSITY: That's an excellent question because I would never say that we have an empathy gene or a caring gene, but we're very much a product of our genetic variations that color our personality and our various emotional states and traits. So here, we were just kind of following up a study that we've done before and many others showing that. This particular genetic variation of the oxytocin receptor relates to prosocial behaviors here in a romantic setting but also the ability to read other people's emotions, stress reactivity, neural activity, parental sensitivity. So the field is really exploding to show these relationships.

FLATOW: So your study showed that if you had one kind of gene, then you were better at reading the empathy - you're more empathetic than people who had a different kind of gene?

UNIVERSITY: Right, precisely. So the oxytocin receptor is really key, so oxytocin is a social lubricant that is so important for pair bond formation, love for your fellow human being, devotion, trust. And it only has one receptor, unlike a lot of other neurotransmitters that have many to play out its role. Oxytocin just has one. So it makes sense that genetic variation in the gene that codes for the receptor to carry out oxytocin signaling would cause all these differences in social behaviors.

FLATOW: How do we know that it wasn't learned along the way? I mean, critics would say, you know, you only had 23 people in your study. You need a bigger study and - to come up with a conclusion that you did.

UNIVERSITY: Oh, absolutely. Those criticisms are very fair. We basically had a nested design in the study, and thereby, we actually had thousands of data points that we had by our over 100 observers collecting this data as well. Along those same lines, there's been over a dozen of other studies with this particular genetic variation showing how it moves all of this social behaviors on how well we can understand people in a noisy environment, our optimism, our self-esteem, our parenting behaviors. So it really follows a line really nicely with some of the previous research that's been done in the field.

FLATOW: Now, you were talking about these various genes and how they might affect your empathy. How could - or how various - I should say, how various is the gene? How many different flavors of it do you have, and how many different kinds of empathy might you have?

UNIVERSITY: Yeah. That's an excellent question. So we really just have one gene that codes for the oxytocin receptor, but we have these things called polymorphisms, which is just a term for many forms, that produce two or more different flavors in the same population. So the oxytocin receptor has various polymorphisms, and we just focus on one that has been plied to maybe be a role in transcription and signaling of this particular hormone. And now, we're not a product of our genes.

There's no such thing as a gay gene or a divorce gene or a depression gene. I was quite a skeptic coming into this field. But we know that we are a product of many, many genes that influence our behaviors but also our life experiences, our environment, our upbringing and our culture. So we're finding this relationship, but we're not claiming that this gene is responsible for everything.

FLATOW: Could - does the gene work the same way in all the cultures that you studied, or could it work backwards in some cultures?

DR. SARINA RODRIGUES-SATURN: That's an excellent question. So other researches in the field, like Young Jun Kim(ph), Shelley Taylor, Joni Sasaki, have really been studying these genetic variations in different cultures. And it's not black and white. It's a very nuanced and complicated story. For example, if you compare Americans and Koreans, the genome type that has been associated with more empathy, more pro-socio behaviors, less stress reactivity. In America, GDs are more likely to seek emotional support when they're really stressed out, but Koreans, not so much. And so that very much falls in lines with the cultural norms regarding emotional support.

FLATOW: And so, how do you explain that difference?

RODRIGUES-SATURN: Well, that's a good question. So we basically have different societies, not – one's not better than other. Here in America, we have an individualistic society where everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and their immediate loved ones. In collectivist societies, there's a greater emphasis on the group, and this group thing, and this large mentality of harmony and loyalty within an entire society. And so it might seemed that we have different cultural rules depending on where we live and our ethnicity background and the genes that our ethnic background give us, based on whether it makes more sense to seek emotional support or regulate one emotions or just put one's heart on one's sleeve. It really depends on the context, and it really depends on your culture.

FLATOW: All right. Let's go to the phone. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. First stop, St. Louis. Hi. Welcome to - Nick, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

NICK: Hello, sir.

FLATOW: Hi there.

NICK: How are you all doing? My question - I guess, you just started to touch on it. So all genes are not necessarily expressed and whether or not they go through some post-translational modification. So are you suggesting that, whether or not it's expressed, there is a - you can actually measure cultural differences, saying - versus a high matriarchal, paternalistic culture versus a, clearly autonomous cultures? And there are measurable differences between, say, these genes that are expressed in an Eastern culture versus the Western culture? Can you talk about that, please?

RODRIGUES-SATURN: Yeah. That's an excellent question. So we have these things called alleles, which is basically just showing that we have alternative forms of a gene. So they come in different flavors.

So for this particular genetic variation, obviously, we get a pair version from each of our parents, and we can fall into a category of having two copies of the A allele, one copy of the A allele and one copy of the G allele, or two copies of the G allele. And for various evolutionary drives that we're not really quite certain what happened exactly, but some cultures do have more of A allele and some cultures more of the G allele. Now, the G allele is what we call an ancestral allele, and that it really evolved first. And the A allele came later in our evolutionary history, whether it was a disposition to be less sociable and less empathetic in certain societies. And again, this not better or worse. It's just an adapted mechanism to basically respond to one's culture and society.

FLATOW: Well, then, if we take that - if we follow that pathway of the evolution of the alleles, that would say that we're becoming less empathetic.

RODRIGUES-SATURN: Yeah. You could take it that way. I would just - I guess, it's just not so cut and dry. So for example, this G allele - in European-Americans, the G allele, there's lower psychological well-being if you're religious. But if you're from an Asian culture, there is more well-being. So it's very, very complicated based on the social hierarchy. And it's possible that not reading everyone's emotions when you're - it might be century overloaded, some cultures, or it might detract from this mentality to go along with the group and think of things in terms of we instead of me.

FLATOW: By the way, your study was a very interesting from the point of view - and your methodology - is that people could tell, looking at other people, in just a few seconds, whether they had that gene or they didn't have that gene just by the way they were acting. And, in fact, the negative part was even stronger than the positive part.

RODRIGUES-SATURN: Right. Precisely. And my hat goes off to the first author, Alex Kogan, who had this brilliant idea to look at these romantic couples, especially when they're talking about a time of suffering in their life. And so I think we're really good at picking up on first impressions. I know myself, I - when I need help from, let's say, a bank teller or an in shop, I look to see who seems the most approachable and the most friendly. And so we're really good at picking up on that. And it would make sense that a genetic variation that would influence our social processing would be expressed outwardly in behaviors that strangers can pick up.

And so, yes, it was a beautiful design that Alex put together with 20-second, just silent videotape, just looking at how much this person was nodding, making eye contact, using kind of an open stance to show that I'm here for you. I really care about you.

FLATOW: Let's go to Leslie in California. Hi. Welcome, Leslie.

LESLIE: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a registered nurse, so I have some empathy, I hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LESLIE: But I'm calling because, you know, in a lot of the cases like the violence that happens in random situations, that person seems to have lost the capacity for empathy at all. And I'm wondering if there's any application in the mental health field for, you know, this discovery because it would really markedly change, you know, the way we treat people with mental illness who display antisocial behaviors.

RODRIGUES-SATURN: Right, precisely. And I think this would just let us get some knowledge about how important oxytocin is for being this social glue that keeps us together, to feel attached, to really care what someone else is feeling and to also understand that some of us do have genetically influenced traits that make it a little harder to make eye contact, a little harder to be sociable and to understand where they're coming from and come up with ways to really coach people out of their shells and to help them really understand what other people are feeling.

FLATOW: All right. Leslie, were you talking more of a gene profile then, finding out people's genetic profiles to see if they might be more...

LESLIE: I don't think that would be far from, you know, reality in the future. I think it's very important because - I mean, look at what happened with the Virginia Military Institute. And people noticed that there were patterns in this people that were - they were asking for help and no one was responding to them.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right.

LESLIE: And it's, you know, I just wonder, you know, if you could do a genetic test for where someone is with their oxytocin - much as you would do for serotonin or for dopamine, you know, there are medications that address those particular neurotransmitters. I mean, I don't know why you couldn't do it for oxytocin? In the end - I mean, I think, heck, you know, if I was feeling bad and I have to take a pill to feel better about my human beings, I would do it in a heartbeat...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: There you go.

LESLIE: ...you know?

FLATOW: Well, thank you, Leslie.

LESLIE: OK. Thank you.

FLATOW: I guess that does open a whole world for medication, does it not, Sarina?

RODRIGUES-SATURN: It definitely does. Yeah. And it definitely could bring some more targets for therapeutic mechanisms. But I'm a big proponent of natural inductions of oxytocin via massage, cuddling, social contact, because we can get it very naturally in an endogenous setting before we turn to pharmaceutical.

FLATOW: All right. Everybody turn to one another and give a big hug this afternoon, especially for...

RODRIGUES-SATURN: Precisely.

FLATOW: ...especially for Thanksgiving. We all need a hug around that time, that holiday, don't we?

RODRIGUES-SATURN: We sure do. We all do, no matter who you are or where you come from.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

RODRIGUES-SATURN: Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: Sarina Rodrigues-Saturn, assistant professor in the department of psychology at Oregon State University in Corvallis. I'm Ira Flatow. This SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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