ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (7): 1574-1588.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.01574

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The role of genes in altruistic behavior: Evidence from quantitative genetics and molecular genetics

LI Haihong1, SHANG Siyuan2,3, XIE Xiaofei1()   

  1. 1School of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences and Beijing Key Laboratory of Behavior and Mental Health, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China
    2Department of psychology, School of Education, Hangzhou Normal University, Hangzhou 311121, China
    3Center for Cognition and Brain Disorders, Affiliated Hospital of Hangzhou Normal University, Hangzhou 311121, China
  • Received:2021-09-26 Online:2022-07-15 Published:2022-05-17
  • Contact: XIE Xiaofei


Altruistic behavior is a behavior that benefits others at a cost to oneself, which is of great significance to groups and individuals. People differ significantly in their everyday altruistic behaviors, which is partly influenced by genetic factors. Recently, researchers have focused on the role of genes in altruistic behavior.
First, the heritability of altruistic behavior was explored based on the method of quantitative genetics. A large number of studies have confirmed that altruistic behavior is indeed affected by heredity, and heritability estimates vary among studies (0~0.87). The heritability of altruistic behavior may be influenced by factors such as age, the method of measurement, and some environmental factors (e.g., culture, family environments). Second, based on molecular genetic research, researchers have found four categories of altruism-related candidate genes, including dopamine receptor genes, serotonin transporter genes, oxytocin receptor genes, and vasopressin receptor genes. These findings confirmed that altruistic behavior was correlated with some gene loci. Taken together, both quantitative and molecular genetic studies have provided abundant genetic evidence of altruistic behavior.
Furthermore, according to the aforementioned studies, the environment has been proven not only to affect the heritability of altruistic behavior but also to play a key role in the influence of genes on altruistic behavior in both quantitative and molecular genetic studies. On the one hand, genotype is associated with an environment that jointly influences altruistic behavior, known as gene-environment correlation. There are three types of gene-environment correlations: passive, evocative and active. On the other hand, the effect of genetics on altruistic behavior is influenced by the environment, known as the differential susceptibility model; that is, the environment affects the development of the altruistic behavior of susceptibility gene carriers in a manner of “strengthening or weakening.” Accordingly, a large number of findings regarding the interactions between genes and the environment on altruism have been found in oxytocin receptor genes and dopamine receptor genes.
The current studies have some problems, such as speculative selection of altruistic candidate genes and inconsistent conclusions. Future research needs to expand on and further explore the effect of neurobiological systems on altruistic behavior, which may focus on genome-wide research, meta-analysis, mechanism exploration, and systematic environmental intervention practice.

Key words: altruistic behavior, gene, gene-environment correlation, differential susceptibility

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