The Genetics of Emotions

By David Ryback, Ph.D.

Tranquilizers and antidepressants have their place, but they’re not always there when we need them.  In the meantime, greater emotional awareness of our own feelings (which some call “mindfulness”) and of those around us can preempt the terrible consequences of “unheard” emotional pain, sometimes even more effectively than medications. As emotional awareness becomes a greater part of our culture, there is a much better chance of mollifying the deep pain of extreme jealousy or grief, or whatever reason, before it leads to such drastic reactions as homicide or suicide.

The ramifications for the workplace are enormous.  We either make use of this emerging knowledge or ignore it at our own peril.  As competitive as the workplace has become, the companies that choose to ignore such knowledge and cocoon themselves in a system of closed hierarchical thinking operate according to what we refer to as the hierarchy-based Status Factor.  On the other hand, those who operate with openness to their environment—and the humans within it—we refer to as operating according to the hierarchy-independent Awareness Factor.

In a fascinating area of genetic research, scientists have begun to uncover the possibility that we’re genetically disposed to be aligned to either of the Status or Awareness Factors.  “These views are deep-seated and built into our brains,” according to Rice University political scientist, John Alford.  Different patterns of brain activity for the two types are being explored by neuroscientists.  After two decades of work on behavioral genetics, including a huge database of the political opinions of 30,000 twins from Virginia, professor Alford found that “identical twins were more likely than non-identical twins to give the same answers to political questions.”

Are there genes that determine whether we’re more aligned with the Awareness as opposed to the Status Factor?  This might be possible, according to the research of University of California political scientist, James Fowler. Fowler discusses two well-studied genes—5HTT and MAOA—“which both help control the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that also influences brain areas linked with trust and social interaction.  People with versions of the genes that are better at regulating serotonin tend to be more sociable.”  Trust and disposition to social interaction sound more like Awareness Factor than Status Factor.  Does that mean that these genes characterize Awareness?

What about a Status Factor gene?  At the April 2007 annual conference of the Midwest Political Science Association held in Chicago, University of Illinois professor Ira Carmen revealed his studies of the D4DR gene which involves regulation of the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Professor Carmen puts forth the possibility that “dopamine might therefore be linked to the need to impose order on the world.”

In a study of 65 individuals at Northwestern University near Chicago, men and women were give money to invest, choosing between risky and more cautious options.  Those with the high-dopamine genes put their money in high-risk investments 25% more often while those with high-serotonin genes invested 28% less money in risky investments.  Altogether, says one of the researchers, Camelia Kuhnen of the Kellogg School of Management, genes probably account for “less than 30% of the variation in risk-taking behavior.”  So that leaves plenty of influence due to cultural factors, emerging news on the investments, and individual experience.


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