Nice Pair of Genes

A study of twins by APS Fellow and Charter Member J. Philippe Rushton, University of Western Ontario, suggests that genes may have much more of an effect on social attitudes — particularly positive ones — than once thought.

A group of identical, non-identical, same-sex, and mixed-sex twins from the University of London twin register were asked to rate themselves on 22 social attitudes, such as altruism, empathy, and aggression. Subjects were asked whether they had ever performed specific acts, such as “I have given directions to a stranger.” They were also asked to respond to positively-keyed statements, such as “I like to watch people open presents,” and negatively-keyed ones, such as “I think it is silly for people to cry when they were happy.”

The results, published in late 2004 by the Royal Society in the United Kingdom, showed that identical twins (who share 100 percent of their genes) were almost twice as similar in their social attitudes as non-identical twins (who share half their genes).

The findings could mean that genes play a larger role than environments in shaping attitudes, but they also underscore the increasing belief that genes and upbringing work in harmony to influence almost every human behavior.

“People’s positive attitudes are ‘in the genes,’ ” Rushton said. “Children don’t necessarily need lots of heavy socialization to make them behave well, although that can certainly help to reinforce what’s already there. Even if educational systems, families, and preaching all stopped tomorrow, children would still grow up with ‘social glue.’ ”

Rushton’s study helps place the genes and environment debate into the field of evolutionary psychology. It shows that although people have developed hard-wired (environmentally-produced) elements of social responsibility, such a value is really soft-wired (inborn). For example, people from different cultures hold conflicting values, but despite those differences, people everywhere work to be socially responsible because it is in their genes to do so.

The results also seem to predict real-life altruistic participation — from voting to doing volunteer work — suggesting that such behaviors could have genetic foundations. “It will be of interest to know from further research whether broad-based pro-social attitudes, which are highly valued by parents and are likely to be well socialized, have a different genetic architecture from other traits,” Rushton said.

Luce Awarded Medal of Science

APS William James Fellow and former Board Member R. Duncan Luce, a University of California, Irvine behavioral scientist whose work has profoundly influenced the fields of psychology and economics, received the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States, at a White House ceremony in March.

“This is a great honor for which I am most grateful,” said Luce, who thanked his family for their support and his genes for enabling him to live long enough to receive the honor. “It is gratifying to receive national acknowledgement of theoretical research in the behavioral sciences.”

Widely considered a pioneer in mathematical behavioral sciences, Luce has pursued a scientific understanding of human behavior for more than 50 years. His work blends mathematical theory and experiments and his formal math models have helped shape contemporary economics. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.

“Duncan Luce is one of the giants of the social and behavioral sciences — an exemplary scholar, educator and human being,” said Barbara Dosher, dean of the UC Irvine school of social sciences. “His work has fundamentally altered our understanding of how individuals and groups make decisions in psychology, economics and statistics, and has revolutionized the mathematical underpinnings of psychology and the social sciences. The National Medal of Science provides well-deserved recognition of his extraordinary influence as a creative intellectual force nationally and internationally.”

The US Congress established the National Medal of Science in 1959 to honor individuals whose pioneering scientific research has led to a better understanding of the world.


A number of APS members presented research at the 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting, held February 17-21 in Washington, DC.

In a lecture series regarding privacy concerns and research, APS Fellow and Charter Member Robyn Dawes, Carnegie Mellon University, discussed potential privacy concerns for scientific researchers. (See this issue’s Convention Highlights for information on presentations in honor of Dawes.)

“Researchers worry they might be discounted if they share their information or ideas before they are published,” Dawes said. Opting to engage in the social science research community, however, yields high levels of cooperation between researchers, “because people decide they want to be in this situation [of sharing research].”

In support of his argument, Dawes referenced his own research findings, which show that people are more likely to cooperate in situations they choose to be in and where cooperation — and not defection (in this case stealing other researchers’ ideas) — is the norm.

During a set of talks titled “New Developments in Human and Social Dynamics: Exploring Cognition,” APS Fellow and Charter Member Phoebe Ellsworth, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, presented research suggesting that Americans and Japanese perceive emotion differently.

In her study, Ellsworth showed American and Japanese participants a picture in which one illustrated character, John, is clearly dominant and five others stand in the background. Sometimes John — whose complexion oscillates from American to Japanese depending on the participant — has an angry face, and sometimes a sad face. The faces of the background characters vary also. Ellsworth found that two-thirds of the Japanese — versus less than half of the American — participants recognize changes in the background faces.

“The Japanese think John is considerably less happy when the people in the background are not happy,” Ellsworth said. “It makes very little difference to Americans what the background people are feeling.”

Jennifer Lerner, Carnegie Mellon University, presented some of her recently-acclaimed research on the relationship between emotion and decision making.

“Once emotions are activated, they become perceptual lenses that then trigger emotion-specific appraisals,” Lerner said.

This leads to what Lerner called the “endowment effect,” which states that selling prices exceed buying prices in a completely unemotional transaction. However, sadness reverses the effect and can make people more eager to get rid of what they already have (sell low) and take in new things (buy high). This research was originally published in the May 2004 issue of Psychological Science and is available at www.psychologicalscience.org/journals.

Nalini Ambady, Tufts University, discussed a social psychological perspective of women’s role in science. She proposed that a person is composed of many identities — Asian, woman, professor, mother, was her example — and that behavior depends, in part, on which identity is activated.

To test this theory, Ambady gave Asian female college students a math test. The students were equally capable of success — all received above 92 percent on the math section of their SATs — but their results varied based on whether their gender or culture was primed by a question posed just before the exam.

Whichever self is called into service performs, Ambady said. “When the gender was activated, [participants] performed worse than when culture was activated.”

The Good Old Days

Age-related differences appear to affect the way adults make and remember their choices in life, suggesting that older adults “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative in their memories,” according to research led by Mara Mather, University of California, Santa Cruz.

According to the research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, adults of all ages tend to “fill in the gaps” when recalling past decisions, shedding light on the mysteries of memory distortion. But as people grow older, they rely more heavily on a comparison process that favors positive emotional outcomes, Mather said.

“The results add a twist to our understanding of how people remember things that weren’t there,” Mather said. “The way we remember one option is shaped by what we know of the other options, and the comparison process changes as we age.”

Mather used studies of decision making to glean insight into how inaccurate memories are generated. The first study explored how adults make decisions when two options lack directly comparable features. For example, when deciding between rental apartments, prospective tenants compare features such as rent, square footage, and natural light. But the comparison is problematic when more is known about one option than the other — Apartment A has hardwood floors, for example, but nothing is known about the flooring in Apartment B.

“It’s a problem in decision making, because people are driven to make decisions by comparing feature-by-feature,” said Mather, who wanted to know how people cognitively cope with the gaps.

It turns out that adults of all ages tend to falsely fill in the gaps and then remember circumstances as being “more alignable” than they were. For instance, in the rental example, the tenant might “fill in the gap” by inferring that Apartment B had carpets and go on to recall that incorrect information later.

In another experiment, Mather explored emotion’s powerful impact on memory and found that older adults with high cognitive functioning use a decision-making strategy that generates more positive emotional outcomes. These older adults — aged 65 to 80 — tend to initially ignore negative features — and to remember them less — than younger adults, in an effort to avoid regret. By contrast, younger adults are more likely to employ what psychologists call the “whole option” strategy, in which they consider both the negative and positive aspects of each option before examining the next option.

Researchers previously have attributed most age differences to cognitive decline. But Mather’s team tested older adults for their cognitive abilities, and those with the best performance on tests of working memory and other complex tasks were most likely to use different strategies than the younger adults.

“This pattern suggests that younger and older adults’ comparison processes are influenced by different goals,” she said. “Even when older adults show little or no signs of cognitive decline, they make decisions differently than younger adults, in ways that should help them avoid regret.”

Top of the Hill:Update from Washington

Change Could Impact Behavioral Funding

The chair of a powerful congressional committee is working to change the way Congress reviews and allocates funding for some areas of behavioral research.

House Appropriations Chair Jerry Lewis, R-CA, proposed a plan that would merge 13 of its subcommittees into 10 subcommittees, saying the reorganization “will allow us to spend less time on the floor and in committee and more time doing oversight over the expenditure of taxpayer funds.” Opponents to the plan, like Representative David Obey, D-WI, believe it “is not aimed at improving efficiency” but is simply an act of Republican partisan politics.

If passed, the plan would move congressional review of National Science Foundation and Science and Technology Policy funding from the Veterans Affairs, HUD, and Independent Agencies Subcommittee to the Science, State Justice, and Commerce Subcommittee.

The plan — which must be approved by both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees — has been rejected twice by the Senate committee but accepted by the House committee. If Senators can convince Senate Appropriations Committee members to support the plan, the reorganization will be instituted.

Coalition Sponsors Public Health Briefing

Nearly 15 groups representing a variety of public health interests combined forces to host a briefing to stress the importance of public health to members of Congress and their staff, as the US Congress prepares to debate health program funding appropriations for fiscal year 2006.

On March 4, APS and 13 other sponsors affiliated with the Coalition for Health Funding hosted the briefing “Public Health 101: Protecting and Improving Lives in American Communities” to review public health basics and the influence the federal government can have on public health improvements.

Other congressional sponsors included Representative Michael Castle, R-DE; Senator Tom Harkin, D-IA; Representative Charlie Norwood, R-GA; Representative Mike Simpson, R-ID; Representative David Obey, D-WI; Senator Edward Kennedy, D-MA; Representative Michael Bilirakis, R-FL; Representative Ralph Regula, R-OH; and Senator Orrin Hatch, R-UT.

The Coalition for Health Funding is a nonprofit alliance of 50 national voluntary, scientific, and professional associations comprising approximately 40 million health care professionals, researchers, volunteers, patients, and families. The Coalition works in a nonpartisan fashion to ensure that discretionary health spending, including for NIH, remains highly visible as Congress and the Administration set federal budget priorities. APS Executive Director Alan G. Kraut is past president of the coalition.

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