People attribute prosocial behavior more strongly to genetics than antisocial behavior, research shows

A new study suggests that prosocial behavior is attributed to a greater degree to genetics than to antisocial behavior. This association can be explained by people’s tendency to view prosocial behavior as more natural and a more accurate reflection of ‘one’s true self’. This research was published in The Journal of Social Psychology

Asymmetries exist in the way people judge different traits and behaviors as genetic. For example, physical attractiveness and being organized are rated as being more genetically influenced than physical unattractiveness and being disorganized. The weaker genetic attributions to antisocial (versus prosocial) behavior could be a means of holding offenders accountable for their behavior, seeing it as a product of their free will. However, recent research has hinted at a stronger mediator of this perceived asymmetry, namely perceptions of naturalness.

People tend to prefer internal attributions for personally positive behavior, see their “true self” as inherently good, and see one’s “essence” as parallel to genes. This tendency can motivate the attribution of positive (but not negative) traits and behaviors to genes, in order to maintain a positive view of one’s “true self.”

Matthew S. Lebowitz and colleagues recruited 600 US participants who were randomly assigned to a “prosocial” or “antisocial” condition. The participants were given the following assignment:

“Take a moment to think of an example of your own behavior from the past year that you are the most [ashamed/proud] by. For example, you think about most [selfish/generous] or [harmful/helpful] something you can remember doing in the past year.”

The terms positive (ie, proud, generous, helpful) and negative (ie, ashamed, selfish, harmful) in parentheses corresponded to the prosocial and antisocial conditions, respectively. After this section, the participants provided naturalness (ie How natural was it for you to do this what you did?) responsibility (ie How much were you responsible for doing this thing that you did?true self (ie How much did this thing you did reflect your true self – the person you really are, deep down?), and genetic attribution classifications (i.e., How much role did your genetics play in getting you to do this what you were doing?) on a 7-point scale.

The researchers found that participants made stronger genetic attributions for their prosocial (versus antisocial) behavior. This is the first work to examine how people make genetic attributions to their own (as opposed to others’) actions. Also, naturalness and true self-classifications were higher in the prosocial (versus antisocial) condition, but there was no difference between the responsibility classifications between the conditions. Three possible mediators were tested to explain this association, but 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 positive valence behavior than negative valence behavior, as well as the extent to which the response might differ depending on whether the behavior being assessed is one’s own behavior. .. or someone else’s.”

Given that this research examined how people make genetic attributions for their own prosocial and antisocial behaviour, standardized examples could not be used by all participants. Also, getting participants to think about the behavior they were pride or ashamed of may have limited the range of remembered behaviors to those for which they have already taken responsibility, possibly explaining why there was no difference in responsibility classifications between the prosocial and antisocial conditions.

Lebowitz and colleagues conclude: “While 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 kinds of behaviors they tend to attributable to genetic causes.”

The study, “Asymmetric genetic attributions for one’s own prosocial versus antisocial behavior,” was authored by Matthew S. Lebowitz, Kathryn Tabb, and Paul S. Appelbaum.

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