If you saw an elderly lady struggling across the road with a shopping cart, would you offer to help her? Most of us would, but new research suggests that a gene related to anxiety disorders may impair a person's willingness to help others.
Researchers from the University of Missouri and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln discovered that people with the genotype 5-HTTLPR - linked to higher social anxiety - were less likely to engage in prosocial behavior, compared with those missing this genotype.
"Prosocial behavior is linked closely to strong social skills and is considered a marker of individuals' health and well-being," says Gustavo Carlo, Millsap professor of diversity at the College of Human Environmental Sciences at the University of Missouri.
Social anxiety can have crippling effects on sufferers. In extreme cases it can lead to agoraphobia.
"Social people are more likely to be healthier, excel academically, experience career success and develop deeper interpersonal relationships that may help alleviate stress."
According to the researchers, previous studies have shown that the brain's neurotransmitter system for seratonin - a chemical that transmits nerve impulses between nerve cells or neurons - plays a key part in influencing a person's prosocial behavior.
From this, the researchers wanted to determine whether this process was mediated by anxiety caused by the 5-HTTLPR genotype.
The team analyzed the genotype of 398 undergraduate students. The participants were also required to report avoidance of certain situations that involved helping other people throughout the study period.
Biological factors are 'critical influences' on prosocial behavior
Explaining the results of the study, published in the journal Social Neuroscience, the researchers say:
"Triallelic 5-HTTLPR genotype was significantly associated with prosocial behavior and the effect was partially mediated by social anxiety, such that those carrying the S-allele reported higher levels of social avoidance and lower rates of helping others."
Scott Stoltenburg, associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, adds:
"Our findings suggest that individual differences in social anxiety levels are influenced by this serotonin system gene and that these differences help to partially explain why some people are more likely than others to behave prosocially."
"Studies like this one show that biological factors are critical influences on how people interact with one another."
Potential help for those with social anxiety
Prof. Carlo notes that since their findings show that prosocial behavior is linked to genetic-based anxiety, it is possible that those with social anxiety could be helped through support, counseling and medication, encouraging them to engage in more social behavior.
"Some forms of anxieties can be very debilitating for individuals," says Prof. Carlo. "When people have severe levels of social anxiety, such as agoraphobia - the fear of public places and large crowds - they will avoid social situations altogether and miss the prosocial opportunities."
He adds that although it is difficult to understand how much of a person's prosocial behavior is a result of environmental or biological factors, this research brings them closer to understanding how an individual's biological makeup plays a part.
Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that anxiety may cause the brain to transform neutral odors to negative ones.