Is Kindness Genetic?

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We all know people who are particularly kind or selfless, who seem to go out of their way to help people and do good. I’d like to think I do this to a certain extent but I have also met people who just appear to be innately kind. It got me thinking: is this a genetic trait? As with many studies when it comes to trying to determine what influences our personalities and dispositions, the evidence is inconclusive but I’d like to present a basic overview of some of the recent studies into the biology behind kindness.

Doctor David Hamilton believes humans have evolved to be kind. He convincingly argues that natural selection favoured ‘kind’ tribes because these ancient groups would have worked together in difficult times and therefore survived threats such as harsh winters or animal attacks. Tribes who did not support one another would have died out, allowing those genetically wired to be kind to continue their lineage. And when it comes to the biology, this theory is still supported. Humans with a high vagal tone in their vagus nerve (the tenth cranial nerve) are generally more compassionate. Additionally, our oxytocin receptor genes (something I’ve written about previously), differs in terms of their ‘shade’ or receptiveness, influencing a person’s likelihood to perform kind acts. Doctor Hamilton does, however, accept that much of our behaviour as humans is learned, so while there may be a biological disposition towards kindness, people can still learn to be selfish and cruel. Naturally, however, it seems we are built to be kind.

Without getting too technical, a group of scientists published their study in 2011 which contained evidence that some people’s oxytocin receptor made them more prosocial than others. The rs53576 DNA sequence (GG) is the most notable oxytocin receptor and makes a person more sensitive to the chemical, leading to them being more optimistic, empathetic and less prone to stress. Thin-Slicing Study of the Oxytocin Receptor (OXTR) Gene and the Evaluation and Expression of the Prosocial Disposition argues that people who have two copies (homozygous) of the G allele and are classified as GG are more prosocial than those who have other allele (AG or AA). They are more loving, trusting and empathetic. 46 people (making up 23 couples) were tested for the study and six out of top ten classified as the most prosocial were GG genotypes. Almost more interestingly, strangers who watched the couples without audio as one of them told their partner about a difficult time in their lives were able to identify who was ‘kind’. In other words, most observers were able to pick out those who had the GG allele without ever meeting them or speaking to them just from their body language and facial expressions over a 20 second period. So regardless of whether kindness is genetic, it is most certainly a recognised, visible and tangible trait which humans can quickly pick up on.

Just because you don’t have a GG allele or your vagus nerve tone is not noticeably stronger than other people’s, doesn’t mean you are an unkind person. As all scientific studies in this area have acknowledged that when it comes to the way in which we behave and interact with others, much of our behaviour is learned from our environment. Returning to the age old question of nature versus nurture, in the case of kindness, it can be considered a mixture of the two. While some people are innately kind, their upbringing and life experiences have probably contributed to the way in which they act. Additionally, some people considered unkind may be have GG allele but have been negatively influenced by their environment to tamp down the biological impact of their kindness gene. Biology can only mould a person so far; beyond a certain point, our life experiences and the way in which we are raised and treated ourselves comes into play.

Do you know someone who you think has kind genetics? Why not introduce them to the More Good Deeds app. They can post all of their kind work to inspire others and raise money for their chosen charity at the same time. Download it now from the App Store.

Go. Do. Experience. More Good Deeds.