Science on Religion

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Religion Can Make You Prosocial, Depending On Your Genes

Trick BikingOne of religion's most important effects is that it fosters community. There’s a lot of ways it does this. It teach people how to get along. It forms group identity. And religion gets people to donate their “time, talent, and treasure” to causes that will benefit the community. This is called “prosocial behavior.” Does religion inspire this behavior in everyone? And could your genes play a role in this?

Behind this effect of religion is human diversity, including in our genes. Different versions of a gene, called alleles, are associated with certain character traits. For example, dopamine is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters. It’s famous for its connection with pleasurable activities. The brain has a family of five receptors that pick up on dopamine’s release. Certain alleles of the gene for one dopamine receptor – type D4 (DRD4) – are associated with antisocial behaviors. People with these alleles are “more socially deviant than others, attracted to novelty and risk while shying away from social conventions and pro-social causes.” In other words, people with these alleles are more likely to act in ways that damage relationships or just make it hard to form relationships in the first place. The amazing finding is that after coming across religious ideas, these people become more prosocial. People with the regular DRD4 alleles, on the other hand, aren’t affected.

This research is based on the Susceptible Gene Hypothesis. Rather than the old concept of nature vs. nurture, in which personality traits are either the products of your genes or the environment, this hypothesis says that both shape who we are. So it looks for gene-environment (G x E) interactions, asking what happens when certain genes and certain environments combine. At its core, this hypothesis rejects the belief that genes themselves are “good”or “bad.” Instead, it recognizes that certain alleles can have different – some good, some bad, some neutral – depending on the environment.

Joni Sasaki, at the time a member of the Cultural Psychology Lab at UC Santa Barbara but now at York University in Ontario, applied the Susceptible Gene Hypothesis to the alleles of DRD4 and to religion’s supposed prosocial effects. DRD4 has a small region known as a variable number tandem repeat (VNTR). A VNTR is a gene segment where a short sequence of base pairs in the genetic code gets repeated. In the DRD4 gene, almost 90% of people have 2, 4, or 7 repeats. Those with 4 repeats are no more or less antisocial than everyone else. However, the 2- and 7-repeat versions are associated with antisocial behaviors. Why is this? Sasaki and colleagues propose that it's because the proteins made from these versions are not as sensitive to dopamine. Risky behaviors are people’s attempts to make up for this because risk-taking leads to a huge release of dopamine

The principle is the same as in wi-fi signals. To get a better wi-fi response, you can either increase the signal sent out by router or increase your laptop’s sensitivity. Like a laptop with a lousy antenna, people with 2- and 7-repeat DRD4 genes don’t get enough dopamine through regular channels. Since they can’t change their genes, these people’s only option is to increase signal by doing as much as they can to get the brain to release dopamine – so they’re not content with the same old, same old. Instead, they act out, always going after something new. They gamble or do drugs, always in search of the next rush. The social consequence of this is that these people tend to be pains to deal with, if not actually destructive. In light of this, the authors call people with these alleles "susceptible" to high-risk, antisocial activities.

Sasaki tested volunteers’ “prosocial” behavior after being exposed to religious ideas, then compared this to what versions of the DRD4 gene they had. The experiment had four parts. First, volunteers were asked to unscramble strings of words to form sentences. For one group, half the sentences said something about religion (”religious priming”). For the other group, there wasn’t any theme (”neutral priming”). Scientists call this technique implicit priming. It gets people thinking about religious ideas without realizing that this was the experimenters' aim. In part two, the participants were asked how willing they were to volunteer for any or all of 36 real "prosocial" groups on their college campus. (Each group was dedicated to protecting the environment in some way.) In part three, the participants told the researchers basic demographic information and how religious they thought they were. In part four, they gave a cheek swab for genetic testing.

The researchers’ analyses compared those with at least one of the 2- and/or 7-repeat alleles of DRD4 (those with "susceptibility" to antisocial behaviors) with those with any other alleles ("non-susceptibility variants"). What’s important is that, while participants reported higher religiosity after being primed, which was expected, this increase was across the board. In other words, how religious people say they are and which versions of the DRD4 gene they had no relation. 

The key finding, though, is this: those with a susceptibility DRD4 allele responded to religious priming. In fact, their prosocial willingness to volunteer was greater than those in the non-susceptibility group. This is set against the control (non-experimental) group, in which everyone was neutrally primed. These subjects with a susceptibility allele were significantly less willing to volunteer than those with non-susceptibility alleles. However, those with the non-susceptibility alleles has the same rate of volunteerism across both priming scenarios.

To recap, Sasaki and colleagues found that subjects who possessed susceptibility DRD4 alleles became more prosocial after being exposed to religious ideas than those without these alleles. The primary social implication the authors draw from this study is that "given the role of dopamine in reward-related processes, an interesting, if controversial, possibility is that people with certain genetic variants are predisposed to behave prosocially for particular reasons." Those with non-susceptibility alleles of DRD4 may act prosocially because of the pleasure it elicits, while those with the susceptibility alleles act prosocially when they feel pressured to do so by others, by God, and perhaps also environmental influences like laws and institutions.

The benefit of this study is that, while religion is said to make you a better person, scientists and scholars have a better idea how and why this is – at least for a certain group of people with susceptibility alleles of DRD4. 

For more, see “Religion priming differentially increases prosocial behavior among variants of the dopamine D4 receptor (DRD4) gene” in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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