The Compassion Gene: Why Some People Are Born To Stand Up For Others

by John Haltiwanger

A gunman recently took a woman hostage on the steps of the famed São Paulo Cathedral in Brazil. It was a robbery gone horribly wrong. Nearby stood a homeless man, calmly smoking a cigarette... but only momentarily.

The homeless man tackled the gunman and was shot twice in the process. In doing so, he allowed the hostage to escape. Even after he was hurt, he continued to corner the gunman. Subsequently, police shot, wounded and arrested the perpetrator.

Ultimately, the homeless man died as a consequence of his selfless efforts.

His name was Francisco Erasmo Rodrigues de Lima and he was 61-years-old.

Francisco evidently couldn't stand to see this gunman abuse another human and was willing to risk his own safety to help a complete stranger. Like millions of other homeless people across the globe, he was likely ignored and perhaps even ridiculed by numerous passersby each day, but none of this deterred him from intervening.

Some people are born with an inexplicable urge to help other people. There is something inside them that makes it unbearable to stand idly by while others suffer.

These individuals are innately compassionate, altruistic, empathic and perpetually sensitive to the needs of others. They can barely fathom the cruel and violent history of this world, but aren't ignorant to the sometimes sadistic tendencies of humanity.

Francisco was one of these people. He epitomized what it means to be compassionate.

The Association for Psychological Science defines compassion as, "the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help."

In other words, compassion is the ultimate form of solidarity. The heroic yet tragic ending to Francisco's life encapsulated this notion.

Correspondingly, there's a great deal of evidence for why some people are genetically inclined to be more compassionate. They are born to stand up for others, especially when no one else will.

Some of us are born with kindness in our blood.

Have you ever met someone and immediately felt he or she was dependable, but couldn't quite explain why?

It was likely because of DNA.

Research shows people who are more caring and trustworthy share a common gene variation that is linked to the receptor for oxytocin, often referred to as the "love hormone." Oxytocin plays a vital role in the formulation of social bonds and relationships, impacting a person's capacity for empathy.

Evidence suggests those with two "G" variants of this gene are better with people and generally more caring, compared to those who have at least one "A" variant.

In a study conducted by researchers from Toronto, California and Oregon, the genotypes of 46 individuals (23 romantic couples) were identified as either GG, AG or AA.

The researchers videotaped the couples and asked one partner to describe a painful experience to his or her significant other. Outside observers were then asked to watch the videos and rate the partner who listened on how supportive, caring and trustworthy he or she seemed.

The study ultimately found the individuals who received the highest ratings for compassion, trustworthiness and empathy shared the GG genotype.

Given the outside observers identified people with the same genotype as more trusting and caring, this suggests most of us are quite adept at immediately discerning whether someone is reliable and if that person would stand up for us if necessary.

Compassion is so powerful people can sense it within others intrinsically.

Compassionate people aren't oversensitive, they're fearless.

Interestingly, separate research shows individuals with the GG genotype are also more altruistic and more likely to give to charity. This is apparently directly connected to how they perceive threats and respond to fear.

Researchers from the psychology department at the University at Buffalo found individuals who saw the world as a frightening place were less likely to lend a helping hand during trying times, which was linked with the AA and AG genotypes.

This implies when people don't help others it's not necessarily a product of rational thought, but fear.

Thinking back to Francisco and how he gave his life for someone he never knew, this makes a great deal of sense. He did not allow fear to prevent him from selflessly risking his safety for the female hostage. While there's no evidence to support this hypothesis, it's conceivable he possessed the GG genotype.

This is not to say individuals without the GG genotype are permanently or fundamentally callous, cowardly, selfish and antisocial, but that some of us seem to have a genetic advantage when it comes to showing compassion. With that said, we are all capable of changing or evolving.

Compassion is also linked to socialization, or the way we're brought up -- it's literally contagious. Studies show when we see others exhibiting kindness or performing selfless acts it can inspire us to follow their example in the future. This process is linked to what has been dubbed "moral elevation," or the warm feeling we experience when witnessing genuinely virtuous deeds.

We are programmed to want to be better humans when we see others acting morally, which is precisely why we should all make an effort to be compassionate and selfless when possible.

This does not all mean we need to be Francisco and willingly risk death for the sake of strangers, but all of us can likely accept a little more self-sacrifice for the sake of the common good.

Indeed, if we can all actively cultivate compassion within ourselves, the benefits will be immeasurable. To borrow from the Dalai Lama:

Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek.

We live in a world that encourages fierce individualism, and many attempt to live according to a "survival of the fittest" mentality. While there is great value in being self-sufficient, it is ultimately social connections that allow our species to survive and evolve.

We have to find a way to work past the ever-increasing cynicism pervading society and lend a helping hand when appropriate.

Showing compassion does not imply weakness or gullibility, it's a tremendous strength and takes courage. Not to mention, the interconnected nature of this convoluted world demands we be more big-hearted.

Whether we like it or not, all aspects of our lives are intertwined with those of others. The fate of humanity is linked.

Stand up for those in need, it's a selflessly selfish way to live -- everyone benefits, including you. To exhibit compassion is to elevate our entire species.

Citations: The neurogenetics of nice receptor genes for oxytocin and vasopressin interact with threat to predict prosocial behavior (PubMed), Telltale Signs You've Got the Love Hormone Gene (Time), Human Kindness Genes Withstand Threats and Fear (Time), The Compassionate Instinct (Greater Good), Thin slicing study of the oxytocin receptor OXTR gene and the evaluation and expression of the prosocial disposition (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), The Compassionate Mind (APS), How Our Bodies React to Seeing Goodness (Greater Good)