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The Helpful Gene

Blurring the lines between ‘accommodating’and ‘anxious.’

Does our genetic code predispose us to becoming a “people person?” An intriguing new finding suggests it may be so.

The study, by Gustavo Carlo, Millsap Professor of Diversity at MU, and Scott Stoltenberg, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, found that “prosocial” behavior, meaning doing things such as volunteering and helping others, appear to be related to the same gene that predisposes individuals to social anxiety, a psychological disorder often defined as “excessive and unreasonable fear of social situations.”

“Previous research has shown that the brain’s serotonin neurotransmitter system plays an important role in regulating emotions,” says Stoltenberg. “Our findings suggest that individual differences in social anxiety levels are influenced by this serotonin system gene, and that these differences help to partially explain why some people are more likely than others to behave prosocially.¬†Studies like this one show that biological factors are critical influences on how people interact with one another.”

If prosocial behaviors and social anxiety are genetically linked, adds Carlo, then helping socially anxious individuals cope through therapies that take these biological factors into account — medications, encouragement, support, and counseling — could be the key to helping them develop a healthier, happier outlook.

“Prosocial behavior is linked closely to strong social skills and is considered a marker of individuals’health and well-being,” say Carlo. “Prosocial people are more likely to be healthier, excel academically, experience career success and develop deeper interpersonal relationships that may help alleviate stress.”

The researchers admit it can be difficult to determine how much prosocial behavior is biologically determined as opposed to how much is acquired via what psychological scientists call “learned environmental behavior.” But they are confident the genetic component has an important role to play. “The nature-versus-nurture debate is always interesting,” Carlo said. “However, I think that in our contemporary models of human behavior, we are beginning to understand the interplay between biology and the environment.”

Carlo’s previous investigations have explored how environmental influences like family relationships have influenced prosocial behavior. This new work brings him closer to understanding the effect that individuals’biological makeup has on their behaviors.

Carlo and Stoltenberg’s study, which included contributions from Christa Christ, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, appeared in the September 2013 issue of¬†Social Neuroscience.

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