AVPR1a and altruism

Nature news:
'Ruthlessness gene' discovered

Selfish dictators may owe their behaviour partly to their genes, according to a study that claims to have found a genetic link to ruthlessness. The study might help to explain the money-grabbing tendencies of those with a Machiavellian streak — from national dictators down to 'little Hitlers' found in workplaces the world over.

Researchers at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem found a link between a gene called AVPR1a and ruthless behaviour in an economic exercise called the 'Dictator Game'. The exercise allows players to behave selflessly, or like money-grabbing dictators such as former Zaire President Mobutu, who plundered the mineral wealth of his country to become one of the world's richest men while its citizens suffered in poverty.
[. . .]
Prosocial hormone

Ebstein and his colleagues decided to look at AVPR1a because it is known to produce receptors in the brain that detect vasopressin, a hormone involved in altruism and 'prosocial' behaviour. Studies of prairie voles have previously shown that this hormone is important for binding together these rodents' tight-knit social groups.
[. . .]
There was no connection between the participants' gender and their behaviour, the team reports. But there was a link to the length of the AVPR1a gene: people were more likely to behave selfishly the shorter their version of this gene.

It isn't clear how the length of AVPR1a affects vasopressin receptors: it is thought that rather than controlling the number of receptors, it may control where in the brain the receptors are distributed. Ebstein suggests the vasopressin receptors in the brains of people with short AVPR1a may be distributed in such a way to make them less likely to feel rewarded by the act of giving.
[. . .]
Researchers should nevertheless be careful about using the relatively blunt tool of the Dictator Game to draw conclusions about human generosity, says Nicholas Bardsley at the University of Southampton, UK, who studies such games.
[. . .]
This suggests that the apparently more altruistic players in Ebstein's game may in fact be motivated by a desire simply to engage fully with the game, perhaps just because they feel that that is what's expected of them.

If that is true, then apparently ruthless dictators may be motivated not by out-and-out greed but by a simple lack of social skills, which leaves them unable to sense what's expected of them.

The paper (pdf manuscript here):
Genes, Brain and Behavior. Volume 7 Issue 3 Page 266-275, April 2008.
Individual differences in allocation of funds in the dictator game associated with length of the arginine vasopressin 1a receptor RS3 promoter region and correlation between RS3 length and hippocampal mRNA
Knafo et al.
Human altruism is a widespread phenomenon that puzzled evolutionary biologists since Darwin. Economic games illustrate human altruism by showing that behavior deviates from economic predictions of profit maximization. A game that most plainly shows this altruistic tendency is the Dictator Game. We hypothesized that human altruistic behavior is to some extent hardwired and that a likely candidate that may contribute to individual differences in altruistic behavior is the arginine vasopressin 1a (AVPR1a) receptor that in some mammals such as the vole has a profound impact on affiliative behaviors. In the current investigation, 203 male and female university students played an online version of the Dictator Game, for real money payoffs. All subjects and their parents were genotyped for AVPR1a RS1 and RS3 promoter-region repeat polymorphisms. Parents did not participate in online game playing. As variation in the length of a repetitive element in the vole AVPR1a promoter region is associated with differences in social behavior, we examined the relationship between RS1 and RS3 repeat length (base pairs) and allocation sums. Participants with short versions (308–325 bp) of the AVPR1a RS3 repeat allocated significantly (likelihood ratio = 14.75, P = 0.001, df = 2) fewer shekels to the ‘other’ than participants with long versions (327–343 bp). We also implemented a family-based association test, UNPHASED, to confirm and validate the correlation between the AVPR1a RS3 repeat and monetary allocations in the dictator game. Dictator game allocations were significantly associated with the RS3 repeat (global P value: likelihood ratio χ2 = 11.73, df = 4, P = 0.019). The association between the AVPR1a RS3 repeat and altruism was also confirmed using two self-report scales (the Bardi–Schwartz Universalism and Benevolence Value-expressive Behavior scales). RS3 long alleles were associated with higher scores on both measures. Finally, long AVPR1a RS3 repeats were associated with higher AVPR1a human post-mortem hippocampal messenger RNA levels than short RS3 repeats (one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA): F = 15.04, P = 0.001, df = 14) suggesting a functional molecular genetic basis for the observation that participants with the long RS3 repeats allocate more money than participants with the short repeats. This is the first investigation showing that a common human polymorphism, with antecedents in lower mammals, contributes to decision making in an economic game. The finding that the same gene contributing to social bonding in lower animals also appears to operate similarly in human behavior suggests a common evolutionary mechanism.

Associations for AVPR1a with "creative dance performance" and "spirituality", eating behavior, and autism have also been claimed. Populations vary in allele frequencies at a nearby SNP, but a quick search fails to locate any data on population variation in RS3 repeat length. If you find some, post it.

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