Dr. Heejung Kim and colleagues (University of California, Santa Barbara) investigate the role of culture, as a form of social environment, in the behavioral expression of genes. Specifically, in this research, they examines the dynamic interplay of socio-cultural and genetic factors, and their effects on socio-emotional processes such as emotional support seeking, emotion regulation, and emotional attention, in order to understand the psychological and biological mechanisms underlying emotional responses. The proposal will focus on the oxytocin receptor polymorphism (OXTR), a genetic locus thought to be associated with socio-emotional sensitivity, and its role in social behavior in East Asian and U.S. cultural contexts. The researchers examine whether OXTR variants, as well as experimentally manipulated oxytocin levels, are related to the ability to accurately detect others' mental and emotional states, and whether this ability is related to the tendency of individuals to engage in culturally appropriate social behaviors.
Most conversations about the role of genes typically center on the idea that a gene is linked to a particular behavior. In the context of cultural, racial, gender, or other group differences, this simplistic understanding about the role of genes can lead to thinking that group differences are fixed or immutable. The model of gene-culture interaction advanced in this research provides a more sophisticated perspective by specifying the pathway by which socio-cultural factors can shape the behavioral outcomes of genetic predispositions. Identifying the psychological and biological mechanisms of gene-culture interaction will advance the public understanding of the complex but fascinating interaction between "nature" and "nurture" that produces diversity in human behavior. The work will also support the training and education of students.