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Do Kinder People Have an Evolutionary Advantage?

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish. In a wide range of studies, social scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive.

In contrast to "every man for himself" interpretations of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of "Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life," and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.

They call it "survival of the kindest."

"Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others," said Keltner, co-director of UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. "Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct."

Empathy in our genes

Keltner's team is looking into how the human capacity to care and cooperate is wired into particular regions of the brain and nervous system. One recent study found compelling evidence that many of us are genetically predisposed to be empathetic.

The study, led by UC Berkeley graduate student Laura Saslow and Sarina Rodrigues of Oregon State University, found that people with a particular variation of the oxytocin gene receptor are more adept at reading the emotional state of others, and get less stressed out under tense circumstances.

Informally known as the "cuddle hormone," oxytocin is secreted into the bloodstream and the brain, where it promotes social interaction, nurturing and romantic love, among other functions.

"The tendency to be more empathetic may be influenced by a single gene," Rodrigues said.

The more you give, the more respect you get

While studies show that bonding and making social connections can make for a healthier, more meaningful life, the larger question some UC Berkeley researchers are asking is, "How do these traits ensure our survival and raise our status among our peers?"

One answer, according to UC Berkeley social psychologist and sociologist Robb Willer is that the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield. In one recent study, Willer and his team gave participants each a modest amount of cash and directed them to play games of varying complexity that would benefit the "public good." The results, published in the journal American Sociological Review, showed that participants who acted more generously received more gifts, respect and cooperation from their peers and wielded more influence over them.

"The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated," Willer said. "But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status."

"Given how much is to be gained through generosity, social scientists increasingly wonder less why people are ever generous and more why they are ever selfish," he added.

Cultivating the greater good

Such results validate the findings of such "positive psychology" pioneers as Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research in the early 1990s shifted away from mental illness and dysfunction, delving instead into the mysteries of human resilience and optimism.

While much of the positive psychology being studied around the nation is focused on personal fulfillment and happiness, UC Berkeley researchers have narrowed their investigation into how it contributes to the greater societal good.

One outcome is the campus's Greater Good Science Center, a West Coast magnet for research on gratitude, compassion, altruism, awe and positive parenting, whose benefactors include the Metanexus Institute, Tom and Ruth Ann Hornaday and the Quality of Life Foundation.

Christine Carter, executive director of the Greater Good Science Center, is creator of the "Science for Raising Happy Kids" Web site, whose goal, among other things, is to assist in and promote the rearing of "emotionally literate" children. Carter translates rigorous research into practical parenting advice. She says many parents are turning away from materialistic or competitive activities, and rethinking what will bring their families true happiness and well-being.

"I've found that parents who start consciously cultivating gratitude and generosity in their children quickly see how much happier and more resilient their children become," said Carter, author of "Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents" which will be in bookstores in February 2010. "What is often surprising to parents is how much happier they themselves also become."

The sympathetic touch

As for college-goers, UC Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton has found that cross-racial and cross-ethnic friendships can improve the social and academic experience on campuses. In one set of findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he found that the cortisol levels of both white and Latino students dropped as they got to know each over a series of one-on-one get-togethers. Cortisol is a hormone triggered by stress and anxiety.

Meanwhile, in their investigation of the neurobiological roots of positive emotions, Keltner and his team are zeroing in on the aforementioned oxytocin as well as the vagus nerve, a uniquely mammalian system that connects to all the body's organs and regulates heart rate and breathing.

Both the vagus nerve and oxytocin play a role in communicating and calming. In one UC Berkeley study, for example, two people separated by a barrier took turns trying to communicate emotions to one another by touching one other through a hole in the barrier. For the most part, participants were able to successfully communicate sympathy, love and gratitude and even assuage major anxiety.

Researchers were able to see from activity in the threat response region of the brain that many of the female participants grew anxious as they waited to be touched. However, as soon as they felt a sympathetic touch, the vagus nerve was activated and oxytocin was released, calming them immediately.

"Sympathy is indeed wired into our brains and bodies; and it spreads from one person to another through touch," Keltner said.

The same goes for smaller mammals. UC Berkeley psychologist Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney, a professor of biological psychiatry and neurology at McGill University, found that rat pups whose mothers licked, groomed and generally nurtured them showed reduced levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, and had generally more robust immune systems.

Overall, these and other findings at UC Berkeley challenge the assumption that nice guys finish last, and instead support the hypothesis that humans, if adequately nurtured and supported, tend to err on the side of compassion.

"This new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin's observations nearly 130 years ago, that sympathy is our strongest instinct," Keltner said.

© 2010 UC Berkeley All rights reserved.
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hypnoticmix hypnoticmix 6 years
There is an instinct though that will trump any thought of giving and that is survival. If we were in post armageddon I'll be damned if UnDave is getting some of my dented rusty can of Spaghettios LOL!
UnDave35 UnDave35 6 years
"we are both selfish and altruistic at the same time" This is the simul ustis et peccator. Simultaneousily Saint and Sinner. Martin Luther wrote at length about this in the his day.
stephley stephley 6 years
"MAY lie in human aggression..."
UnDave35 UnDave35 6 years
"The roots of human cooperation may lie in human aggression. We are selfish by nature, yet also follow rules requiring us to be nice to others. " “That’s why we have moral dilemmas,” Dr. Tomasello said, “because we are both selfish and altruistic at the same time.”
stephley stephley 6 years
stephley stephley 6 years
"If left alone, a child will be selfish and never learn how to work together and share." Is that from personal observation?
UnDave35 UnDave35 6 years
I read your comment to mean you agree with the article. If left alone, a child will be selfish and never learn how to work together and share. The fact that you have to teach the children to work together kind of debunks the whole evolutionary progress. Don't ya think?
hypnoticmix hypnoticmix 6 years
You'll have to elaborate more UnDave because they way I read it you (do) agree with me. What do they learn from playing? They learn that it is a better benefit to work together. True it's not a birth instinct but when left alone human nature is always inclined to work together for the benefit of all. It is the materialist society that is relentless in making us have to think twice about being selfish or being giving.
UnDave35 UnDave35 6 years
Hypno - I disagree. Children learn to play together (usually around 3 or so), and from that they learn the benefits of working together. It's not hard wired into their system.
Yogaforlife Yogaforlife 6 years
Or in different societies. It may be more obvious say in indigenous tribes or communities that have a different lifestyle than ours in the U.S.
stephley stephley 6 years
That's true Hypno, I think this study would be easier to observe in a smaller community.
hypnoticmix hypnoticmix 6 years
Spiritual enlightenment for sure which is evolution when it comes down to it I guess. I don't buy that people are prone to be stingy IMO it is our society environment that makes that suggestion upon us but it is human nature to work together. In a society that makes it's impression like a jack hammer on the brain I can see how many people lose that or never get a chance to realize it. It's nice to know things are changing for the better.
Yogaforlife Yogaforlife 6 years
haha, you'd almost have to have the kids from birth since we don't know how much impression or impact parents' emotions have on infants and such. It's an interesting concept but has years of research ahead to substantiate the initial findings.
UnDave35 UnDave35 6 years
One way would be to take a group of kids, and remove "kindness" from their environment. Good luck finding volunteers though....
Yogaforlife Yogaforlife 6 years
I'm just trying to understand it myself. I don't advocate discrediting the work though just because it contradicts already formed public perceptions. It will be interesting to see what other scientists in this field say after they review it and what future research shows. I think that it is good to evaluate it and see if it holds up as good science. But I don't know if it should be compared to public perception because public perception isn't necessarily based on science or accurate. Sort of the earth is flat argument - everyone could see the earth was flat, their own personal experience told them this. The public perception was the earth was flat, and when any scientists challenged that public perception and presented data to support the earth was round, it was met with resistance simply because it didn't support public perception (they could see the earth was flat!). I think that this type of research is going to always be difficult because you always have the environment as a variable - and it's going to be hard to show it's either genes or the environment and more likely a combination of both. I think the best they can do is if there really is a gene, look at how the environment influences the product of the gene.
UnDave35 UnDave35 6 years
That's an interesting theory.
Yogaforlife Yogaforlife 6 years
Children can also masturbate even when they have not entered puberty yet. Maybe this gene works sort of the way puberty works.
Yogaforlife Yogaforlife 6 years
One act or a few acts of kindness, or rage or any other emotion in a child does not mean that the gene is not dormant. The gene could code for the overall emotional mindset of adulthood. Just because a person is classified as being kind does not mean that person does not have bouts of anger or other emotions, just like a person who is said to be selfish or mean could have moments of being generous and kind. Indications of one does not mean that emotion is exclusive and there will never be instances of other emotions. This would be true with children as it is with adults.
UnDave35 UnDave35 6 years
"Children do not have the full range of adult emotions." I'll agree with that, but if kindness is caused by a gene, then why do children exhibit kindeness, if it's dormant?
Yogaforlife Yogaforlife 6 years
Well some genes lay dormant through different stages in life. Such as the genes that trigger puberty, or genes that signal when to stop growing, etc. It could very well be a gene that isn't switched on until adulthood. While this kind of gene may be beneficial to adults, so as to aid in the raising of children, it may not be beneficial to children because it could mean the child isn't aggressive enough to get what it needs, if you think of it in a purely an animal sense. Thus the gene may not switch on until a later period. Children do not have the full range of adult emotions.
stephley stephley 6 years
Even in the terrible twos, babies will often be spontaneously kind, solicitious of someone sad, generous to others. They aren't all raging monsters and they don't all have someone teaching them 'acceptable behavior'.
UnDave35 UnDave35 6 years
I would disagree. They are exactely the group, because they have very few "learned" responses.
stephley stephley 6 years
I've known some lovely 2-year olds; their sense of self in terms of the rest of the world is still developing, so they're really not the group to try and make a point with.
Yogaforlife Yogaforlife 6 years
That's a good question, UnDave. The question is how much is learned and how much is a genetic predisposition. I would say not all two year olds are selfish - there's a vast range of behaviors seen. And again, infants and toddlers are still developing. I wonder if there's any merit into looking into when this gene becomes "active". Maybe it's not active in childen but is "switched on" during some stage of their development. I read this book "Animals make us human" by Temple Grandin and it explained the emotional needs of different animals, how the emotional hardwiring came about so as to maintain survival of the animal (ex. horses - flight response) and how humans can meet those emotional needs in pets. If we don't meet those needs, various behavioral outcomes may occur from fear to aggression, from aversion to company to clinging to the human. It explained a lot of neurotic behaviors that are seen in animals. Reading that, I think it may help illustrate how emotions can be genetic predispositon.
UnDave35 UnDave35 6 years
IF you practice it, it may be natural, but if you teach it to others, it isn't natural. Being kind isn't a bad thing, but look at 2yr olds. They are among the most self-centered people in the world. Most learn to be outward focused, and learn kindness. That's not evolution, that's learned behavior.

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