Are You Generous or Not? It May Be In Your Genes

by Silicon Valley Blogger on 2007-12-229

How generous have you been this year? Apparently, your genes have something to do with it!

One of my favorite children’s books of all time is the Giving Tree, a story about true altruism and love. We’ve had it ever since someone gave it to us as a gift for one of my kids, and we love reading it often, at bedtime.

The story made me think of other examples of altruism, such as good samaritans in today’s world, who risk a lot to help others. Or even the moves some of the big billionaires have made to give away most of their wealth to benefit the world.

So what makes these people tick? Don’t most people claim “it’s the way we were raised”. Or “we were taught from day one to be generous people by our parents.” Is it all because of family values, or could we attribute this to other things?

Here’s what I found out: just as some of us are programmed to be spenders, while others are savers, there’s also indication that some of us are wired to be givers while others tend to be scrooges.

The Giving Tree

Seems like there’s been some compelling evidence towards this finding, as discovered by a group of researchers headed by Dr. Ariel Knafo of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Psychology Department. They conducted a social experiment that involved 203 online participants or “players” each of which were allocated the amount equivalent to $12. They could then give away all or part of it to another anonymous player.

They also provided DNA samples which were matched and evaluated against their behavior during the experiment, and interestingly, a particular gene was isolated, called AVPR1a, which showed that whoever had it gave away 50% more money on average than those who did not have the gene.

So apparently, there is a gene for “altruism”.

Some more interesting details of this study:

The gene AVPR1a codes for the production of a receptor that enables a hormone, arginine vasopressin, to act on brain cells. Vasopressin, in turn, has been implicated in social bonding. The researchers found greater altruism in players in which a key section of the AVPR1a gene, called its promoter, was longer. The promoter is the region of a gene that allows cellular machinery to bind to it and determine how much gene product is made. In the case of this gene, a longer promoter can result in greater activity.

Well I guess this shouldn’t be surprising — if there’s a gene for being a cheapskate, shouldn’t it be pretty much the same gene that makes you a scrooge? And I wonder if it’s at all related to the gene that makes you want to be charitable and generous. So for those who have the cheapskate gene without the altruistic gene, maybe it’s time for a new resolution?

Image Credit: The Giving Tree @ The University Of Chicago

Copyright © 2007 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark McGuire December 22, 2007 at 11:26 am

One interesting thought I have about this is that genes do mutate. Even genes have the power to evolve.

Yes, it may take 20 generations to do so but it is possible.

So if a cheapstake gene change their ways by teaching their next 20 generations to give, would that change their genetic makeup?

Terrific article, happy holidays.

Racer X December 22, 2007 at 12:54 pm

I also believe for a lot of us it has to do with fear response.

If you grew up poor or continuously having bill collectors come after your parents, then you may become a horder, because you don’t want that to happen to you, or you may swerve into a big spender, because it doesn’t matter anyway!

Mrs. Micah December 22, 2007 at 7:44 pm

Hmm. Like RacerX, I wonder if the frugal gene is somehow related to fear–or being overwhelmed. I often feel overwhelmed when confronted by the huge need that is out there. Especially since we’re in a tight spot anyway. One way I dealt with that was by setting up an automatic charitable donation to a charity I really admire. Then it’s a budget item…kind of like automated saving. That way I don’t have to battle my fear response every month.

Brip Blap December 25, 2007 at 7:59 pm

My charitable gene has always been influenced strongly by my grandfather’s dictum that charity begins at home – make sure your own house is in order before you start giving. His definition of charitable giving, though, was any charity BESIDES the church, which was automatic for him. I don’t give to church so I’m a bit more generous with charity. I guess in other words – even charitable giving has grades and distinctions.

The Giving Tree is so touching that I don’t read it to my son often – I get all teary, particularly thinking about my older relatives who have passed on when I read it. It’s a beautiful book but just very emotional…sniff.

Silicon Valley Blogger December 26, 2007 at 12:48 am

People typically have predispositions towards certain behaviors which I believe get more pronounced depending on circumstances they’re in. Also, many behaviors are a result of both genetic and environmental programming: the usual nature vs nurture debate. I believe it’s a little of both though there are camps who do argue one or the other as being the prominent reason behind the way we tick.

Brip Blap – The Giving Tree strikes the same chord with me. It has that effect of tugging at the heartstrings, making me all weepy as well. I have the exact same reaction as you when I pick up this book — I resurrect happy memories of people who mean so much in our lives. I end up reading this book to my kids quite often because they like it and frequently pick it out of our stack. Excellent choice, I always say!

Kyle @ January 29, 2008 at 4:00 pm

Very interesting post. The Giving Tree is a great book indeed. It is interesting that some of the more generous people I have known in my life had very little of their own. They simply had the outlook that we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. To quote Winston Churchill.

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