I hadn’t thought too much about what makes a person be nice, although I do have to admit that sometimes I simply can’t understand why some people aren’t nicer to others. My natural reaction is to want to try to help people if possible, not because I’m some paragon of virtue (I’m not) but simply because it’s my natural reaction. It’s what both makes sense to me logically to do, and what emotionally I feel compelled to do.
That compulsion can have a range of how it manifests, which has in the past for me personally included things like carrying a first-aid kit in my trunk in case anyone ever needs it and then using it the time a woman was domestically assaulted in front of me and I wanted to stop her bleeding until the ambulance arrived, to smaller things like calling the energy company to report power outages even in areas that I don’t live or work just because I noticed it as I drove by, or panicking and running around trying to save and protect stray dogs, and to even smaller things like donating to charity when I can.
I mention these examples solely so you know what I mean about my “natural reaction” in case you might have imagined something different. I’m not saying those examples are something amazing or particularly nice, because to me it’s perfectly normal and I assume everyone else does the exact same thing. But I’m not sure if they do so I thought I should give some specifics. Also, I’m not labeling myself as being ‘nice’ but other people have called me that so I figured I could make a good example to use in explaining why this is interesting to me.
And to be even more clear that I’m not trying to claim anything stupid: The thing is, sometimes my compassion limit is reached and I just can’t with anything. I get really pissed off about some things if I find them to be morally ambiguous and hypocritical (I can deal with moral ambiguity on its own but I hate hypocrisy so that riles me up a lot), and sometimes I find myself being a dick to people because I’ve gotten so tired after dealing with things for so long that I just can’t couch everything in pleasant words with a polite smile anymore. Sometimes just no. I can’t. Sometimes I can’t laugh at things either (which is usually my defense mechanism) and sometimes I can’t translate it into a learning experience to try to make it positive. Sometimes I just need a break and I need to rant.
I mention that to explain that I’m not nice because I expect anything in return; I’m nice because there is simply no other logical or emotional option in my brain most of the time; but I’m also not always nice because sometimes I’m so worn down mentally I get frustrated with people and want to yell at them for being idiots rather than try to calmly discuss with them our differences.
Anyway, I’d never thought about why I’m this way and someone else is some other way, other than that I assumed their life experiences or whatever other situation caused that to happen. But I saw that there had been a 2012 study about a gene that contributes to people being more generous, and it turns out that it is also related to oxytocin.
Someday, I will probably do a post about oxytocin on its own because it is so awesome and fascinating to me… it’s called the “love drug”, “trust hormone” or “cuddle chemical” and I mentioned it as one of the neurobiological factors in the way a survivor might respond at the time of being raped, but it’s also related to a recent study that found that the neurobiological response between human parents and their human infants was very similar to the neurobiological response (in this case, a positive feedback loop) between humans and their dogs. Specifically domesticated dogs; not cats or even wolves raised since birth by humans. In other words, if you know someone who treats their dog like their child, that feeling may not be far from the truth as far as the hormone levels in their brain is concerned.
Oxytocin is also involved in the idea of whether someone’s nicer, because several genes were identified as controlling the function of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. In less technical terms, oxytocin is what makes you feel love, and vasopressin is involved in regulation of social behavior (weirdly enough, has also been called the fidelity or monogamy gene). And this 2012 study found that people’s perceptions of the world (as a more or less threatening place) combined with these specific genes to predict generosity.
Here’s a quote from Michel Poulin, PhD, principal author of the 2012 study:
Study participants who found the world threatening were less likely to help others — unless they had versions of the receptor genes that are generally associated with niceness.
[These “nicer” versions of the genes] allow you to overcome feelings of the world being threatening and help other people in spite of those fears.
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. So, if one of your neighbors seems really generous, caring, civic-minded kind of person, while another seems more selfish, tight-fisted and not as interested in pitching in, their DNA may help explain why one of them is nicer than the other.
We aren’t saying we’ve found the niceness gene. But we have found a gene that makes a contribution. What I find so interesting is the fact that it only makes a contribution in the presence of certain feelings people have about the world around them.
Find the article here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120410093151.htm
And here’s a video about altruism that’s very interesting, because it looks at why and how it could have developed, evolutionarily speaking:
What is so interesting to me about this topic is that growing up I thought everyone would react exactly how I would in situations, but over time I found that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes people reacted the same way I did, and other times I seemed to be the only one doing it. I then thought that it probably indicated something was wrong with me but I didn’t care because it’s who I am so it’s fine. On the other hand, because it comes so naturally to me, I would sometimes judge other people for not being more kind when it seemed to me it wasn’t that difficult of a thing to do. I felt that they were very purposefully not being helpful or kind, or that there was some sort of factor I didn’t know such as maybe a mental illness or something else.
Now, I see that it’s possible it’s something else entirely: it may simply be in their DNA, the same as it is for me.