A new study suggests that prosocial behaviors are attributed to genetics to a greater extent than antisocial ones. This association can be explained by people’s tendency to see prosocial behaviors as more natural and a more accurate reflection of the “true self”. This research was published in The Journal of Social Psychology.
There are asymmetries in the way people evaluate various traits and behaviors as genetic. For example, physical attractiveness and organization are rated as being more genetically influenced than physical unattractiveness and disorganization. Weaker genetic attributions to antisocial (versus prosocial) behaviors could be a means of holding wrongdoers accountable for their behaviors, seeing them as a product of their free will. However, recent research has hinted at a stronger mediator of this observed asymmetry, namely perceptions of naturalness.
People tend to favor internal attributions for positive personal behavior, perceive their “true self” as inherently good, and see one’s “essence” as parallel to one’s genes. This tendency may motivate the attribution of positive (but not negative) traits and behaviors to genes, in order to preserve a positive view of the “true self.”
Matthew S. Lebowitz and colleagues recruited 600 US participants who were randomly assigned to a “prosocial” or “antisocial” condition. Participants were given the following message:
“Please take a moment to think of an example of your own behavior from the past year that you like best. [ashamed/proud] from. For example, you could think of most [selfish/generous] either [harmful/helpful] something you can remember doing in the last year.”
The positive (ie, proud, generous, helpful) and negative (ie, embarrassed, selfish, hurtful) terms in parentheses corresponded to the prosocial and antisocial conditions, respectively. After this part, participants provided naturalness (i.e., How natural was it for you to do what you did?), liability (ie. To what extent were you responsible for doing what you did?), real me (i.e. To what extent did what you did reflect your true self, the person you really are, deep down?), and genetic attribution classifications (i.e., What role did your genetics play in making you do what you did?) on a 7-point scale.
The researchers found that the participants made stronger genetic attributions for their prosocial (versus antisocial) behaviors. This is the first work to examine how people make genetic attributions for their own actions (as opposed to those of others). In addition, naturalness and true self ratings were higher in the prosocial (vs. antisocial) condition, but there was no difference between conscientiousness ratings across conditions. Three potential mediators were tested to explain this association, however, only “true self” judgments were found to significantly mediate the observed asymmetry in genetic attributions.
The authors write: “Future research could further clarify why people view genetic attributions as more plausible in the case of positively valenced behavior than in the case of negatively valenced behavior, as well as to what extent the response may differ depending on whether the behavior being judged is one’s own or another’s.”
Since this research examined how people make genetic attributions for their own prosocial and antisocial behaviors, standardized examples could not be used across participants. Additionally, encourage participants to reflect on the behaviors they were proud either ashamed de may have limited the range of recalled behaviors to those for which they have already taken responsibility, which could explain why there was no difference in responsibility ratings between the prosocial and antisocial conditions.
Lebowitz and colleagues conclude: “Although the ‘first law of behavioral genetics’ may tell us that all human behavior is heritable, the current findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that people may be selective about the types of behavior that lean”. attribute to genetic causes.
The study, “Asymmetric Genetic Attributions for One’s Prosocial Versus Antisocial Behavior,” was authored by Matthew S. Lebowitz, Kathryn Tabb, and Paul S. Appelbaum.