Signaling compassion is genetically encoded


New research reveals that it takes only 20 seconds to tell if a total stranger is showing empathy, compassion and trustworthiness. They call that “prosocial behavior.”

Most people know that effective counseling incorporates a certain kind of body language: face forward, open body language, nodding and eye contact mean you are paying attention, are interested and feel compassion. These things can be learned. More importantly however, scientists have now discovered that these postures are genetically encoded to indicate a person’s compassion.

For the study, lead author Aleksandr Kogan and colleagues filmed 23 romantically involved couples discussing a painful memory. The film was shown, without audio, to 116 strangers. These strangers were asked to rate how kind, trustworthy and caring the individuals were.

Prior to testing, the listening partner (among the romantic couples) was given a blood test to identify the genotype for the oxytocin receptor. Most people know oxytocin as the love hormone. It is linked to trust, love, bonding, reducing the impact of negative responses and social recognition. They found that certain genotypes had a greater oxytocin response and instinctively displayed more compassion between the couples. They were identifiable to the strangers who looked at their film.

“People can’t see genes, so there has to be something going on that is signaling these genetic differences to the strangers,” explained Kogan, a postdoctoral student at the University of Toronto at Mississauga in Canada. “What we found is that the people who had two copies of the G version displayed more trustworthy behaviors – more head nods, more eye contact, more smiling, more open body posture. And it was these behaviors that signaled kindness to the strangers.”

So while some people might be naturals at empathy, others will need to work a bit on displaying it. But the characteristic is important enough to be genetically encoded.

Source: MedicalNewsToday, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)


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