Is there a genetic contribution to cultural differences? Collectivism, individualism and genetic markers of social sensitivity


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Abstract

Genes and culture are often thought of as opposite ends of the nature–nurture spectrum, but here we examine possible interactions. Genetic association studies suggest that variation within the genes of central neurotransmitter systems, particularly the serotonin (5-HTTLPR, MAOA-uVNTR) and opioid (OPRM1 A118G), are associated with individual differences in social sensitivity, which reflects the degree of emotional responsivity to social events and experiences. Here, we review recent work that has demonstrated a robust cross-national correlation between the relative frequency of variants in these genes and the relative degree of individualism–collectivism in each population, suggesting that collectivism may have developed and persisted in populations with a high proportion of putative social sensitivity alleles because it was more compatible with such groups. Consistent with this notion, there was a correlation between the relative proportion of these alleles and lifetime prevalence of major depression across nations. The relationship between allele frequency and depression was partially mediated by individualism–collectivism, suggesting that reduced levels of depression in populations with a high proportion of social sensitivity alleles is due to greater collectivism. These results indicate that genetic variation may interact with ecological and social factors to influence psychocultural differences.

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