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Santa or Scrooge – the genetics of generosity

Santa or Scrooge – the genetics of generosity

It’s that time of year again. That time when we rack our brains to come up with the perfect gift for friends and family. Some of us dread it, some of us even loathe it, but yet some of us absolutely love it. There are people who might even say that gifting is a science. While scientists have yet to find the ‘gifting gene’, they have uncovered a connection between our genes and generosity.

Two key hormones that play a key role in our social behavior are vasopressin and oxytocin, also sometimes referred to as the ‘love drug’. In controlled lab settings, volunteers given doses of oxytocin were found to be more sociable.

 

Recently, science has discovered that the genes responsible for the oxytocin and vasopressin receptors impacted how generous, nice, empathetic, and altruistic we are (1). In one example, volunteers were given virtual money to complete online tasks. Each person had the option to either use or ‘donate’ their money to another anonymous player. Incredibly, researchers found that individuals with a specific version of the vasopressin receptor gene donated roughly 50% more than people without that version of the gene.

In another study, participants were given a survey to measure people’s attitude toward civic duty, views on the world, and charitable acts (2). The result suggested that individuals with particular versions of the oxytocin and vasopressin receptors were more likely to be generous and nicer, regardless of their view on the world or how ‘good’ they believed others to be.

So the next time you’re discussing holiday shopping, pay attention to what others are getting and giving, maybe you can figure out variant they are…Santa or Scrooge?


1 Knafo, A. et al. Individual differences in allocation of funds in the dictator game associated with length of the arginine vasopressin 1a receptor RS3 promoter region and correlation between RS3 length and hippocampal mRNA. Genes Brain Behav. 2008 Apr;7(3):266-75.

2 Poulin, MJ et al. The neurogenetics of nice: receptor genes for oxytocin and vasopressin interact with threat to predict prosocial behavior. Psychol Sci. 2012 May 1;23(5):446-52.