Gene of the Week: The Nice Gene

Posted by Daniel Sharp April 19, 2012
Biopolitical Times

The latest ‘gene of the week’ is making its obligatory rounds through a series of misleading headlines. This week’s case: niceness.  

In typical “single gene” reductionist fashion, a slew of news articles and commentaries (over a hundred at last count) in publications including Time, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and CBS News, have reported that there’s a gene for niceness. Two of the most hyperbolic ledes include these gems:

If God had wanted me to be nice, he would have given me different DNA. More specifically, He would have loaded me up with receptor genes for the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin. At least that’s the finding of psychologists with the University of California, Irvine and the University at Buffalo.


Going back to the first time some caveman refused to share his cozy fire and haul of fresh berries with his chilly, hungry neighbor, people have wondered what makes some of us kind and generous and others, well, jerks. Some have blamed nature (the "She was just born bad" angle); while others say it's nurture (the "His parents raised him right/wrong" view). Now, new research…gives new heft to the nature camp.

Another great read, “Have a Demon Child? It’s all genetic,” told parents that “Not all children are born with the ‘niceness’ gene – which in essence means that some children could be bad seeds.”

All the “nice gene” hype unsurprisingly distorts the (already perhaps questionable) findings of the original scientific article in Psychological Science, which uses the word “nice” only once - in the title. In fact, one of the co-authors, University of Buffalo researcher Michel Poulin, has specifically stated that "We aren't saying we've found the niceness gene." The article actually discusses “prosociality”: a concept dubiously derived from a cluster of complex behavioral traits like ‘charitable giving’ and ‘sense of civic duty,’ which are of course culturally mediated activities.  

Poulin responded in a qualified manner to the “nice gene” hype, noting

The fact that the genes predicted behavior only in combination with people's experiences and feelings about the world isn't surprising…because most connections between DNA and social behavior are complex.

This isn’t the first wave of “nice gene” and “prosociality” hype (see this piece from last year), nor is it the first time such studies have been met with criticism.  Recently, the folks at Genomes Unzipped responded to another prosociality gene study with a vicious takedown. The authors argued that there are huge methodological problems with most candidate gene studies, and that the predictive power of such studies is so low it might as well be “random.” 

Of course, qualified and careful scientific statements produced are rarely headline-worthy, and in-depth discussions of the methodologies employed in genetic research run the risk of putting readers to sleep. “Born Bad?,” “Born Nice,” and “The Niceness Gene” – all headlines on news coverage of the study – all sound a lot catchier than the complicated and yet to be discovered scientific truth.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: