Are mean people born that way?
April 18th, 2012
09:27 AM ET

Are mean people born that way?

Let's face it - everyone isn't nice. In fact, being nice is more difficult for some people than others. But is it possible that "niceness" is predetermined by our genes?

A new study in the journal Psychological Science suggests this: If you think the world is full of threatening people, you're not going feel compelled to be generous by doing things like volunteering and donating to charity. But if you have certain gene variants, you're more likely to be nice anyway.

Now hold on a minute - this doesn't give your mean neighbor an excuse to blame his DNA for not letting kids on the block play on his lawn.

It's a little more complicated than that.

The research: A few questions and some spit 

Researchers offered an online survey to participants asking questions like:

–do people have a duty to pay taxes?

–are people basically good or bad?

–do you engage in charitable activities?

Then some participants sent in samples of their saliva so researchers could check out their DNA. A total of 348 U.S. residents were included in the final analysis.

Researchers analyzed the spit samples. They looked at the particular variants of receptor genes these people had for the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.

In case you're wondering, oxytocin and vasopressin are very similar structurally, and seem to have some similar social effects. For example, they're both associated with pair bonding - aka bringing closer together two spouses or a mom and her child.

In fact, that's why oxytocin has been called "the cuddle hormone."

But while the hormones have similar effects on the brain, they differ in the rest of the body. Oxytocin can induce labor. Vasopressin increases when you're thirsty and prevents the formation of urine.

As the authors of the new study expected, people who see the world as a threatening place tended to not engage in charitable activities - except if they had particular variants of the receptor genes that the researchers were looking for.

It turns out that if the receptors are especially sensitive to oxytocin and vasopressin, even people who fear others in society will do nice things, said Michael Poulin, assistant professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo and study co-author.

"We’ve found that these genes also predict people’s willingness to be nice on behalf of other people or aggressive on behalf of other people," Poulin said. In other words, such biological factors may influence your willingness to defend someone else.

That is consistent with other research, which found that rat mothers are more willing to be aggressive on behalf of pups when they received oxytocin.

Previous research has also shown that these hormones make people more socially active.

Blame the DNA?

Keep in mind that this study only shows associations between genes, hormones and behavior, and doesn't prove direct causal links.

It's not a "blame your DNA" situation, Poulin said.

"While we found some interesting interactions with genes and perceptions of the world, I would resist saying that we found genes that control behavior," he cautioned.

The next step for this area of study is to look at how sensitive people are to different kinds of threats.

A few questions that might be posed by future researchers:

–Is it important for people to believe they're helping good people?

–Is there something in a person's background or upbringing that influences how threatening they believe the world is?

Poulin and colleagues will also look at what other behaviors these genes might influence.

So it's probably a little too early for mean people to start using their DNA as a convenient excuse for their bad behavior. But maybe someday...

soundoff (795 Responses)
  1. Angela Kim

    We're born mean. I actually enjoy being mean, most times. I'm not being true to myself when I try to play nice. It's just not me.

    April 19, 2012 at 00:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Michael

      Then you were taught to be mean.

      April 19, 2012 at 05:31 | Report abuse |
    • Uncle Dutch

      Then it ain't hard to figure out you live alone. You must be a gas at parties.

      April 19, 2012 at 09:37 | Report abuse |
    • Maggie

      At least you're honest, but I've met so many mean and evil people in my life when I lived in CA that I make an effort not to be like them.

      April 19, 2012 at 09:58 | Report abuse |
    • Daniel Fleming

      It's great you're being honest...but if you're OK with being mean, you still suck.

      April 19, 2012 at 11:33 | Report abuse |
    • terry cloth

      angela your mean for a reason- your ugly and your puss puss hasnt gotten pounded for decades. women who are always mean and bitter arent getting laid enough, especially if they are fat and ugly

      April 20, 2012 at 19:20 | Report abuse |
  2. Rogers and Hammerstein

    You've got to be carefully taught.

    April 19, 2012 at 00:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • rmstch

      Great response! Nellie Forbush and Lieutenant Cable would certainly agree with you!

      April 19, 2012 at 04:50 | Report abuse |
  3. OnlyOne

    Of course they are. There's no other way to explain pathological republicans.

    April 19, 2012 at 00:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Forrest

      Now they need a study to show why some people's lives revolve around partisanship and who only see the world as liberal vs conservative. This article has nothing at all to do with politics, but here you go injecting your partisan rhetoric anyway. Fascinating.

      April 19, 2012 at 06:11 | Report abuse |
  4. Batman Back

    charities determine your niceness? i know dudes who donate blood and give to charities just to meet females that they're going to dog out later.

    lmao... niceness gene?

    April 19, 2012 at 00:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Smanzicks

      They're just doing it for the tax deduction.

      April 19, 2012 at 20:02 | Report abuse |
  5. Fuyuko

    I firmly believe that a lot of personality traits are genetic. I have a father who is a narcissist. And a few sisters who show those traits. Meaness is probably a survival trait. It makes sense its genetic. Afterall they have discovered that criminality and strong religiousity is also genetic.

    April 19, 2012 at 01:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • NC

      Very True Fuyuko

      April 19, 2012 at 13:33 | Report abuse |
  6. Tim

    They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-White.
    Anti-racist is a code word for anti-White.

    April 19, 2012 at 01:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. joke

    so nearly a million dollars of taxpayers money went to fund this pathetic research??

    April 19, 2012 at 02:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Truth Hurts

      Either this comment is a Joke or you cannot read. I don't see anywhere, where the article states that the research was funded by Tax dollars. The link to the Journal of Sciences go to the University of Buffalo.

      April 19, 2012 at 05:53 | Report abuse |
  8. Jared

    The impact factor of the journal Psychological Science is around 5.0 (rounding up). So, for me this impact factor means 'good try, some insight, but in the end of the experimental presentation we are not sure quite what is going on, although there are certainly some things to think about'. I kind of think that it is funny that they picked 2 genes out of 20,000+ genes or coding elements (/enhancer elements or other important non-coding elements) in the genome and looked for genetic variants in these 2 genes. Certainly human behavior is complicated, and a 2 gene program is not sufficient to describe such a complex behavior. An unbiased approach at looking at the genomes of 'angry patients' versus 'whatever' might be more reveling. I downloaded their publlication, and the results seem... well rather inconclusive and quite incomplete, but make sure you judge that for yourself.

    April 19, 2012 at 02:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Derek Donovan

    "everyone isn't nice" - C'mon, this is a news site, use proper, at least accurate English. What you want to say is "Not everyone is nice". What you said is that everyone - all people - are not nice. This is very simple, and even people who don't work hard at speaking correctly will understand the correct phraseology.

    April 19, 2012 at 02:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • will

      People learn grammar to know how to communicate properly, not English, which is a language.

      April 19, 2012 at 02:49 | Report abuse |
    • ArtInChicago

      If you caught that this early in the morning and posted about it, you are mean 🙂

      April 19, 2012 at 02:53 | Report abuse |
    • Not A Control Freak

      "What you said is that everyone – all people – are not nice."

      Derek, in "proper/accurate English" everyone are not nice? Hard to take you seriously when you fail to make your point.

      April 19, 2012 at 12:14 | Report abuse |
    • stateschool

      Mr. Donovan is correct. There is a difference between "Not everybody is nice" and "Everybody is not nice." Consider "Not all that glitters is gold" vs. "All that glitters is not gold." It's one thing to casually misuse English grammar in everyday speech (we don't, after all, walk around with editors), but a news article – and especially its opening sentence – should be grammatically correct.

      April 19, 2012 at 13:33 | Report abuse |
    • Smanzicks

      Sumtimes a persin fells passinite about what their trying to say that thy dont think about grammer.

      April 19, 2012 at 20:07 | Report abuse |
  10. anon

    I disagree. I am currently dating someone that for the first year was a complete and utter toolbag (don't ask, i was in love). It took a while, but he's a polar opposite now.... people do change, you just can't force or expect them to.

    April 19, 2012 at 02:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. miscreantsall

    I believe all humans are born mean. In fact, all nature is basically mean.

    Some humans learn to be nice……….some, and as the years roll by………fewer and fewer.

    April 19, 2012 at 03:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Will

    I never grow tired of these ridiculous, poorly-designed and poorly-controlled studies that demonstrate nothing. Excellent waste of time and money...

    April 19, 2012 at 03:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Die

    I hate you all!.

    April 19, 2012 at 04:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Maggie

      Touché, that's funny!!!!

      April 19, 2012 at 10:04 | Report abuse |
  14. Sari in Vegas

    I don't understand the thrill some people seem to get from being mean. Don't these people have better things to do? I mean, there's a whole world full of awesome stuff out there. Why spend your time peeing in everyone's Cheerios?

    April 19, 2012 at 05:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Michael

      It is because they have a things called "issues".

      April 19, 2012 at 05:33 | Report abuse |
    • Maggie

      My nephew peed in my horses' apple treats once. I know that he's mean because who would hate defenseless animals so much to do that. Now that he's grown, not only is he mean but a liar, too.

      April 19, 2012 at 10:10 | Report abuse |
    • ew

      I'd rather see mean people than people who make distasteful comments like this one " Why spend your time peeing in everyone's Cheerios"

      April 19, 2012 at 13:15 | Report abuse |
  15. augustghost

    people suck....period

    April 19, 2012 at 05:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Maggie

    I don't think mean people are born that way. I think some trauma in their life makes them become mean. Evil people are born that way! What about the people that are allergic to oxytocin, it makes them vomit violently, and can't tolerate the drug, are they too nice, so other people think that they can take advantage of them because of it?

    April 19, 2012 at 09:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Smanzicks

      I would agree on the trauma. I am the nicest person until I get mad – then I turn into my mother but luckily the rage only lasts a minute or two instead of days or weeks.

      April 19, 2012 at 20:03 | Report abuse |
  17. eroteme

    O Happy Day! A new 'study'! This new intelligent study provides the answer to a subject that has unbelievably escaped the thoughts of scholars for the past hundred, hundreds? of years. We are so very fortunate to learn from this enlightening 'study'. I can hardly wait for the next one!

    April 19, 2012 at 11:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. morris2196

    I am more inclined to blame environment. Some people are mean because people were mean to them while growing up. Some others are mean because their parents did not hold them responsible for their behavior.

    April 19, 2012 at 11:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Gerald Kuester

      There may be some truth to your statement. As a criminal investigator, I have had a couple cases where my client's, who plead guilty to murder, were exposed to lead as infants. Lead exposure in infants can cause brain damage to the frontal lobe which controls executive functions such as impulse control.

      April 20, 2012 at 21:10 | Report abuse |
  19. Kate

    So, people should always be sugar sweet, empathetic,compassionate, yadda yadda yadda. In other words sheep like and brain dead.
    How character-less and pathetic. The guy who won't let kids play on his lawn? MAYBE he does not like or want kids. Is this mean? No. Sane.
    This so-called study is an example of misplaced funding for one of those useless publish or die proffs who clutter up the universities of today.

    April 19, 2012 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. wise old man

    Define "mean"

    April 19, 2012 at 12:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lilliamn

      Posted on I should have cleosd the door to my office before I read this post. Because the people across the hall probably think I am developing a seizure/hysteria disorder. There are tears streaming down my face and I am still laughing out. Thank you, thank you for sharing this Craft FAIL.Cameron’s last blog post..

      July 3, 2012 at 06:10 | Report abuse |
  21. Hannah K.

    From observation, social research for school, and personal experienced, I have come to find that the people who look innocent and preach about God or are more "aggressively religious", are usually the most judgemental and ruthless; the ones who appear more intimidating, are more compassionate.

    April 19, 2012 at 12:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. AVI

    the study was conducted before the year 1490 the results were different.
    If other countries were participating so well in real article.
    At least another fortnight another universe and contradict scientifically

    April 19, 2012 at 13:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Cathoryn

    Define "mean."

    The survey questions are not qualifying "mean":
    1. Do people have a duty to pay taxes? Are you law-abiding?
    2 Are people basically good or bad? Are you judgmental?
    3. Do you engage in charitable activities? How do you spend your discretionary time?

    An example of what "mean" means:

    Congenital defect causes dude to look Goofy. He's just minding his own business & he ain't hittin' on you – ain't even lookin' at you, but you go out of your way to tell him his parents shoulda smothered him as soon as his Ma squeezed his creature double feature from her vertical abyss.

    BAM! That's mean.

    April 19, 2012 at 13:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. JPopNC

    It's glaringly obvious none of the people conducting the study have children because they'd know immediately know we're all 'mean' from he beginning, and it's because we're born into sin and we have a sinful nature. Those with children can attest kids will lie, manipulate, steal, and be downright ugly mean to get their way. It's in our nature and that's evident in everyday's news.

    April 19, 2012 at 13:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Roberta

    My daughter has turned out to be a mean person, not just to us but others as well. My husband and I were not mean people. I have always wanted to know why she turned out that way

    April 20, 2012 at 10:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Jorge

    When I was younger I always wanted to be the good son, good neighbor, good friend etc. I would go out of my way to help others and bend over backwards to please or be a problem-solver. Over the years I got a heaping helping of true human nature and quite a few ungrateful, mean people. Now, I not only pick and choose the folks I help according to my whim, there are types of people who I wouldn't p!$$ on if they were on fire, and I will watch them crash and burn in fascination instead of helping them out when I see them about to make a direly stupid mistake, or I will make up excuses to do nothing for them knowing I could easily do otherwise. It gives me joyful, tingly feeling to watch them struggle and rave, OOOOEEEEE. What comes around, goes around.

    April 20, 2012 at 12:02 | Report abuse | Reply
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  27. terry cloth

    your mean for a reason- your ugly and your vajajay (for a woman) or man_kunt (for a man) hasnt gotten pounded for a long time. women or men who are always mean and bitter arent getting laid enough, especially if they are fat and ugly

    April 20, 2012 at 19:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Gerald Kuester

    Someone should check my DNA. I work as a PI in defending people charged with murder in order to support my prison ministry.

    April 20, 2012 at 21:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Genetic Alliance

    Yes,i totally agree with the author of this post.People are now becoming more mean.This maybe their natural behavior or due to their Genetic disorders which arises before the birth.

    April 24, 2012 at 15:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Anonymous

    You all are trolling on this article! Way to waste your time on other peoples expenses...

    May I remind you that you like being a troll for the lack of production in the real world. Get moving, unless you like staying in your parents basement doing flame wars and trolling for the sake of trolling.

    kthxbai! =D

    July 17, 2012 at 19:51 | Report abuse | Reply
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