Study shows genes may indicate an individual’s trustworthiness

Yian Shang/Staff

People may be able to judge if someone is trustworthy and empathetic within seconds of seeing them, according to a UC Berkeley study published Nov. 14 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research, which shows a link between biology and empathetic behavior, reveals that people with the guanine-guanine genotypic configuration more often display behaviors that indicate empathy — such as head nodding, eye contact and an open body posture — allowing people to determine if they trust a stranger in a matter of seconds, according to the researchers.

“We know that you can’t see a person’s physiology — it has to manifest in some sort of behavior,” said co-author Christopher Oveis, assistant professor of management at UC San Diego. “You can accurately tell something about a person from very little behavior.”

For the study, the researchers video recorded Berkeley couples talking with each other about times of suffering, said Aleksandr Kogan, lead author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. The researchers then deleted the audio and showed strangers 20-second clips of the partner who was listening during the interaction.

When they asked the viewers to rate the listeners on how trustworthy and compassionate they were, the genotype mostly predicted the ratings, Kogan said, although there was some variation. Of the 10 people rated the most trustworthy, six had the guanine-guanine genotypic variation on a receptor related to pro-social behavior, while the other four had a different variation. Of the least trustworthy, one person had the guanine-guanine genotype, he said.

“I think this is just another way to color a person’s personality,” said Sarina Saturn, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University. “(Guanine-guanine) people tend to be a little more social — looking at other people’s eyes, reading others’ behavior. It’s not for better or worse.”

Saturn compared the study’s findings on the oxytocin receptor to scientists’ understandings of seratonin’s relation to moodiness and dopamine’s relations to thrill-seeking.

The researchers said they are cautious not to over-interpret the study’s results, calling it “preliminary” research.

“There’s a huge interaction between biology, experiences, psychology and all of these things work together to create the person,” Kogan said. “People don’t need to worry about their genotypes and whether they have the good or bad version.”

Although the study found the genotype to be a powerful predictor of people who display trustworthy and caring behavior, Kogan said there are other factors that make it difficult to predict how certain individuals will be perceived. He added that this genotype variation is one of “a ton of other factors” that go together to affect a person’s behavior.

The researchers said they did not know what actually causes the biology to translate to certain behavior.

“Exactly what’s going on is a pretty big mystery,” Kogan said. “We think this gene is involved in a broader system.”

While she said more research is needed, Saturn said she hopes this information can be used to help people who may struggle socially.

“I really believe this is just to inform us,” she said. “We’re all born into different shoes, and some of us are really social. We’re all a little different.”