Pessimists can blame their woes and travails on bad genes, a new study has found. Researchers from the University of British Columbia have determined that a previously known gene variant can influence your perception of life by amplifying negative experiences and emotional events. The findings shed new light on the processes whereby environmental and biological factors combine to generate a coherent picture of the world.
Published in the journal Psychological Science, the new study examined the deletion variant of ADA2b – a gene associated with the neurotransmitter and hormone norepinephrine. Previous research efforts have pointed to a correlation between the gene and the formation of emotional memories. According to lead author Rebecca Todd, scientists now believe that it can exert a similar influence on our real-time perception of the world around us.
"This is the first study to find that this genetic variation can significantly affect how people see and experience the world," she explained in a press release. "The findings suggest people experience emotional aspects of the world partly through gene-colored glasses – and that biological variations at the genetic level can play a significant role in individual differences in perception."
To investigate the link between the ADA2b deletion variant and a pessimistic outlook on life, the researchers enrolled 200 people in an experiment. The participants were shown a rapid succession of positive, negative, and neutral words. When asked to describe the sequence, participants with the gene were more likely to focus on the negative words than the others. Conversely, participants who lacked the gene favored positive words.
The researchers theorize that for individuals with the ADA2b deletion variant, this disproportionate focus on negative detail is generalized across all perception. As the pessimistic patterns are mapped onto work, family, and everyday life, the gene carrier’s world becomes bleak.
"These individuals may be more likely to pick out angry faces in a crowd of people," says Todd. "Outdoors, they might notice potential hazards – places you could slip, loose rocks that might fall -- instead of seeing the natural beauty."
R. M. Todd, D. J. Muller, D. H. Lee, A. Robertson, T. Eaton, N. Freeman, D. J. Palombo, B. Levine, A. K. Anderson.Genes for Emotion-Enhanced Remembering Are Linked to Enhanced Perceiving. Psychological Science, 2013