Monday, November 14, 2011

Thin-slicing study of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene and the evaluation and expression of the prosocial disposition

The neuropeptide oxytocin has been linked to emotional expression and trust in interpersonal relationships, especially in mother-child bonding. Now the rs53576 SNP on the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) has been identified as a factor in prosocial behavior (empathy or acting in a way that benefits another). This SNP is located in an intron, possibly suggesting the activity of a genetic switch able to repress or promote oxytocin sensitivity. Although this study displayed a strong correlation of those homozygous GG for rs53576 and prosocial behavior, and a correlation with reduced prosocial behavior for those with the A allele, the exact molecular effects of the allele are unknown.

The study showed a group of observers 23 video clips, each 20 seconds long (a thin slicing behavioral analysis), of a romantic couple. One member of the couple told their partner about a time of suffering in their lives. Without hearing the sound, observers rated the other partner on several metrics according to non verbal intuitive cues, including kindness and trustworthiness.

Out of the 10 rated most prosocial, 6 were GG. Out of the 10 rated least prosocial, 9 carried the A allele. Results indicate that friendship networks could form along genetic lines, ultimately leading to assortative mating. It gives another example of how we can detect genetic makeup in others even during a brief interaction.

Despite these results, in order to control the variable of culture, all targets studied were caucasian. In addition, the low number of test couples limits the decisiveness of the study. Two major questions were raised in the study. 1) What is the relationship between this SNP, other OXTR SNPs, and cultural environment. 2) How does this SNP functionally influence brain conditions to create behavioral differences?


  1. This is early research, and more is needed - bigger studies and more cultural diversity - but it's interesting how we pick up on behavioural clues and how these *might* be influenced by our genes. We've written about it and linked to this post at

  2. So... new paper in PNAS shows that this paper misanalysed their data