Genetics of Human Social Behaviour


Our species, Homo sapiens, displays the most multifaceted social behaviour ever to evolve, far exceeding all other social species from eusocial insects to our nearest primate relatives. This intricate social behaviour underpins our remarkable success in evolving from cooperation in small bands of hunter gatherers ∼100 000 years ago to the apex of globalisation that characterises the twenty‐first century political and economic institutions. Although our social brains are remarkably flexible, a significant part of our social behaviour is hardwired and embedded in our deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) code. The human mind is not a tabula rasa, and our behaviour is constrained to a significant extent by our genes. That is not to say that environment is unimportant; along with the genetic code, the interaction between environment and genes makes us who we are. The overall role of genes and environment is revealed firstly by twin studies and then by leveraging the human genome project. The latter enables the identification of specific genes that, together with the environment, contribute to individual differences in human social behaviour.

Key Concepts:

  • Twin studies demonstrate that both genes and environment more or less equally contribute to individual differences in almost all human behaviour.

  • Diverse social phenotypes such as pair bonding, parenting, fairness, altruism, trust, economic behaviour, political attitudes and others are partially hardwired.

  • Two nonapeptide hormones, oxytocin (OT) and arginine vasopressin (AVP), are paramount human social hormones and have been the focus of attention of studies based on translational evidence from rodents, especially the vole.

  • Candidate gene association studies have provisionally shown that genes in the AVP and OT neural pathways also contribute to human social behaviour.

  • Other neural pathways and their associated genes, especially dopamine and serotonin, have also been identified and linked to human social behaviour.

  • Neuroeconomics, which employs the principles and techniques of behavioural economic games, paves the way towards finding common polymorphisms by employing economic games as phenotypes in molecular genetic studies.

  • Genome‐wide association studies (GWAS), which are agnostic and hypothesis free, offer the opportunity to identify many novel genes contributing to human social behaviour.

  • To leverage the power of GWAS and discover new ‘social’ genes, sharpened phenotypes such as incentivised laboratory ‘games’ need to be employed. Such laboratory‐based phenotypes strategically go beyond pencil and paper questionnaires ideally employed in panel studies and surveys.

Keywords: genomics; twin studies; heredity; social behaviour; cognition; gene×environment interaction

Figure 1.

Heritability of social behavioural phenotypes. The figure outlines the relative influences of genetic effects (both additive and dominant), the shared environment and the unshared or unique environment (which also includes measurement error) in contributing to social phenotypes. Phenotypes are listed in order of estimated genetic effects with descriptions and references provided in Table . Reproduced from Ebstein et al. . © Elsevier.

Figure 2.

Genetic variation (SNPs) across the OXTR receptor. The receptor contains three introns and four exons. Several dozen SNPs have been identified within the gene and the figure shows only tagging SNPs obtained from the HapMap database and Haploview programme. A tagging SNP is a representative SNP in a region of the genome with high linkage disequilibrium (the nonrandom association of alleles at two or more loci). It is possible, and hence cost effective, to capture most of the genetic variation without genotyping every SNP in a chromosomal region. Reproduced from Israel et al. . © Creative Commons Attribution License.

Figure 3.

Location of AVPR1a microsatellite repeats. The first codon is represented by ATG. Reproduced from Knafo et al. . © Creative Commons Attribution License.

Figure 4.

Diagrammatic representation of the human DRD4 gene region. Exon positions are indicated by blocks (yellow, noncoding; orange, coding). The approximate positions of a 120‐bp promoter region duplication (blue triangle), an exon 1 12‐bp duplication (blue triangle), an exon 3 VNTR (blue triangle) and two intron 3 SNPs are indicated. 2R–11R variants of the VNTR are indicated below exon 3 (blue) along with their worldwide population frequencies determined by PCR analysis. Reproduced from Yuan‐Chun D et al. . © National Academy of Sciences, USA.

Figure 5.

Games in play in experimental economics. The Dictator (Forsythe et al., ; Kahneman et al., ), Ultimatum (Guth et al., ) and Trust (Berg et al., ) Games have been widely studied in the emerging field of neuroeconomics (Fehr and Fischbacher, ). These games illustrate fundamental concepts of dyadic social interactions including fairness, altruism and preferences for equity. Reproduced from Ebstein et al. . © Elsevier.



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Further Reading

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Young LJ (2007) Regulating the social brain: a new role for CD38. Neuron 54(3): 353–356.

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Ebstein, Richard P, Melman, Rachel‐Bachner, Lai, Poh San, Monakhov, Mikhail, and Chew, Soo Hong(Nov 2013) Genetics of Human Social Behaviour. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0024387]