MU researcher links anxiety to pro-social behavior

Oct 21, 2013

DNA samples
DNA samples
Credit aspidoscelis / Flickr

A University of Missouri researcher has co-authored a report that found that individuals genetically predisposed to anxiety are less likely to volunteer and exhibit other pro-social behaviors. 

MU researcher Professor Gustavo Carlo says this is related to a construct called personal distress, where someone observing another person in trouble experiences emotional distress themselves.

“Someone comes across someone that’s whose hurt badly in an accident and we see, if we look around some people stand around there and don’t seem to really know what to do, they’re kind of like frozen,” Carlo said.

Professor Scott Stoltenberg of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln served as Carlo’s co-author on the study. Stoltenberg says to collect data they had about 400 college aged participants fill out a survey and provide cheek cells to the researchers, allowing them to study the DNA of the participants.

"We had them fill out some questionnaires that asked them about their past of pro-social behaviors and these kind of behaviors had to do with helping strangers or donating to charity, things like that," Stoltenberg said.

Using the questionnaires and DNA, they were able to identify a common gene variant that influences the brain’s serotonin system and find an association with the gene and social behavior.

Stoltenberg says there is no evidence that the gene causes a behavior. But he thinks that it influences a person’s anxiety levels that can change how a person reacts to a social situation.