A cultured gene

Not Exactly Rocket Science covers an eye-opening study that looked at an interaction between genetics and social behaviour. So far, so normal, except that the researchers found that the gene in question, involved in sensing the hormone oxytocin, had a different effect on social behaviour in Americans and Koreans.

The study looked at how often people will ‘reach out’ to others for help and emotional support when they under stress, something that is more acceptable in the US than in Korea, and how this differs among people with different versions of the OXTR or oxytocin receptor gene.

Oxytocin has been stereotyped as a ‘hug drug’ that promotes positive social interaction but really is just a hormone involved in a range of social behaviours and has been linked to everything from bonding with babies to gloating and envy.

This new study adds to the more nuanced view of the hormone, which found a ‘reaching out’ effect only in the group of Americans, indicating that culture was affecting how the gene affected behaviour.

[Psychologist Heejung Kim] compared 134 Korean students with 140 American ones, all with comparable splits of age, gender and background. Using a questionnaire, she measured how stressed each volunteer was feeling at that point in their lives, and how they cope with stress. As with previous studies, Kim found that Koreans are less likely than Americans to turn to their social circle for support and they get less out of doing so; they are more concerned about burdening their friends and straining their relationships.

The OXTR gene exerts its influence against the background of these contrasting cultural conventions. Distressed Americans with one or more copies of the G version were more likely to seek emotional support from their friends, compared to those with two copies of the A version. But for the Koreans, the opposite was true – G carriers were less likely to look for support among their peers in times of need (although this particular trend was not statistically significant). In both cases, the G carriers were more sensitive to the social conventions of their own cultures. But the differences between these conventions led to different behaviour.

The research is a nice counter to a trend in science where studies from the American and European ‘science superpowers’ tend to overgeneralise their results (assuming that they apply universally) where research from smaller countries tends to over-localise their results.

Studies from the US and Europe tend to have titles like “An effect of gene X on ability Y”, whereas papers from smaller countries tend to say “An effect of gene X on ability Y in sample of young people from a small town in the north west of a mountainous region in continental Asia”.

Of course, each are likely to be influenced by culture and have limitations to their generalisability but this doesn’t tend to be equally recognised.

Link to Not Exactly Rocket Science coverage.

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