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The Nice Person Gene

Is there a genetic component to kindness?

By Rich_Maloof Apr 12, 2012 5:03PM

Photo: Courtesy of the University of BuffaloA new study published in Psychological Science suggests that niceness may be programmed into your DNA. Do you have the makeup to be nice, or are your genes all mean?

Researchers from the University of New York at Buffalo and the University of California, Irvine, examined how genes affect the receptors for two hormones associated with “prosocial” behavior. The hormones oxytocin (more widely known for its role in maternal behavior) and vasopressin have previously been shown to have an influence on high moral functions including the inclination to be kind and selfless. Whether or not you have a gene allowing you to receive those hormones may impact how nice a person you are, according to the study.

Lead researcher Dr. Michael Poulin, who looks like he has a good oxytocin flow, has been interested in why people engage in behaviors that benefit others when there is no obvious, self-serving benefit to being nice. He’s also been studying what makes a person care for others when in a stressful or threatening circumstance, such as in moments of grief or in the heat of battle.

Subjects for the study were each asked a series of questions to determine how they felt about charitable acts such as donating blood, what their perspective was on civic duties like reporting crimes, and what their general views were about people being good or evil. Poulin and his team then took saliva samples from 711 of the subjects to see whether or not they had the receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin.

According to Poulin, “study participants who found the world threatening were less likely to help others — unless they had versions of the receptor genes that are generally associated with niceness.”

We can’t exclusively credit those gentler genes for determining who would help an old lady cross the street versus who would kick her in the shins. From what scientists understand, the influence of genetic makeup on personality doesn’t work quite that way. Environmental factors ranging from the way we’re raised to what we eat certainly have an influence on personality, and the researchers emphasize that the connections between DNA and social behavior are complex. The gene doesn’t flip a switch that turns niceness on or off. But in combination with a positive world view, it appears to make an important contribution. 

The prospect of being genetically predisposed to kindness raises questions for all personality types. Is genetic makeup responsible for the personalities of people who are too nice, putting other people ahead of themselves to their own detriment? Is it possible they just can’t help themselves? On the flipside, of course, are those who are not so nice at all. Is it possible that the kid who laughed when you smashed your head had a deficit of oxytocin and vasopressin receptor genes — and was not, as you had suspected, just a plain old jerk? 

Most intriguingly, if we’re not pre-wired to be nice, can we change?

Photo: Courtesy of the University of Buffalo

Apr 25, 2012 8:01PM
Most of us who try to do nice things, do it because we were taught to be kind and helpful. Also it makes us feel good, so there's usually no downside! Win, win!
Apr 25, 2012 1:37PM

@ProfessorWilson -- I suppose you're just doing the best you can do with those naturally mean and arrogant genes of yours.


A nice person would tell the waitperson directly, not intentionally get their blood pressure up. And a nice person would stop by and talk to the manager on their way out, if the manager weren't busy.

Apr 25, 2012 6:57AM
I'm way too nice and my boyfriend hates it because I often let my family take advantage of me. I get sick of it but I feel like I have to help them. Now I can just blame it on genes >.< 
Apr 25, 2012 3:37AM
We've seen from work like that of Byron Katie, Kurt Lewin, Louise Hay, Werner Erhard, Tony Robbins, and others that people can choose how they react to other people and situations. It may not be the natural default, but it can be learned. I think this is the basis of most religious traditions.
Apr 25, 2012 1:31AM
Nice and even not-so-nice people can equally enjoy employing the following "nice" strategy. If I get especially good service at a restaurant, I will ask the wait staff to speak to the manager. A look at the expression on the waitstaff's face usually leaves little doubt he or she is concerned about what I am going to say. (If the person looks especially distressed, I let on as to why I want to talk to a manager)  Often times the manager will have an equally concerned expression on his or her face when approaching my table. This is understandable because apparently there are more grumpy than nice customers. There is something like 9 complaints for every one compliment directed at waiters and waitresses. Usually the wait staff stands away from my table but still within earshot when I talk to the manager. I usually bring up the previously cited 9-to-1 ratio and then talk about what exemplary service I have received. I give as many specifics as I can about how well I was treated. It is amazing the immediate sense of relief that comes across on both the manager's and waitstaff's face. I also am thankful enough to give an appropriate tip to tangibly show my gratitude as well. Yeah, I will even admit to being a little ornery at times, but I'm pretty sure that everyone appreciates my "nice" comments in the end. It certainly makes me feel better when I see how my comments make them feel better. I call that a "win-win" any way you slice it!
Apr 25, 2012 12:21AM
Mean people s*u*c*k!!! It's so much easier for everyone to be nice to others....and it keeps you in good spirits as well!!! That's right people....SHOW SOME LOVE!!! SmileSmile
Apr 24, 2012 11:01PM
I have always believed that my son inherited many personality characteristics from his dad. Before he grew up to have these characteristics I had never thought of it.
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