Are kindness and generosity learned behaviors, or are they genetic?

A new study says it could be a little of both, largely dependent on how we view the world.

In the research, Michael Poulin, PhD, of the University at Buffalo, and his colleagues first asked volunteers about their views on civic responsibility, like reporting crimes and paying taxes, and about their charitable activities, such as giving blood or attending PTA meetings. They were also asked if they viewed other people as basically “good” or “bad,” and if they perceived the world as more “threatening” or “non-threatening.”

About 700 of the study participants then provided saliva samples for DNA analysis to find out if they had the specific genetic receptors for the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, which have previously been linked to social behaviors like love, generosity and empathy.

The results showed people who viewed the world as a threatening place to be were generally less likely to exhibit behaviors linked to niceness — unless they had those genetic receptors. In other words, the genes predicted behavior only in combination with people’s experiences and feelings about the world.

“We are not just puppets of our genes,” Poulin concluded. “Genes influence niceness in combination with perceptions of social threat, which come from our past and present experiences.”

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