Are people born nice or made nice?

Some people may be born nice because their genes direct them towards such behaviour. This is the suggestion of new research from the University of Buffalo (UB) and the University of California, which found genes act in tandem with a person's perceptions of the world - whether it is threatening or not, for example - to predict how generous they are.

The findings have been published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science and Michel Poulin, Assistant Professor of Psychology at UB, explained individuals who believe their surroundings to be daunting - unless they have versions of the receptor genes linked with niceness - are less likely to help others.

He claimed these more pleasant versions of the genes enable people to overcome feelings of being threatened, stating: "If one of your neighbours seems [a] really generous, caring, civic-minded kind of person, while another seems more selfish ... their DNA may help explain why one of them is nicer."

Chartered Psychologist Professor Philip Corr of the School of Social Work and Psychology at the University of East Anglia commented: "The idea that both genes and environment influence thoughts, feelings and behaviours is widely accepted.

"What emerging research is also showing is that the interaction of these factors may be especially important. In an intriguing study, Poulin's et al show that genes related to oxytocin and vasopressin (hormones known to be related to maternal and prosocial behaviours) modify the effects of perceived threat (a measure of the environment) to predict engagement in volunteer work, charitable activities and commitment to civic duty.

"Specifically, people who view the world as more threatening are less likely to help others - however, they are more charitable if they have versions of the genes associated with oxytocin and vasopressin. It seems that these genes buffer the negative effects of perceived threat.

"These results may be intriguing, but they must be seen as preliminary as they are, essentially, correlational in nature. As the authors point out, their study cannot rule out the possibility that the observed gene × perceived threat interactions reflect epigenetic (developmental) effects - for example, higher levels of perceived threat may result from adversity in early life.

"Only experimental studies of threat and prosocial behaviour can resolve this ambiguity. However, these limitations aside, this study points to the sources of important social behaviours and confirms that there is a complex interplay of variations in DNA and perceptions of the environment.

"It will be left to future research to examine why people differ in their perceptions of the environment - and whether these differences are, themselves, related to variations in their genes."