Genomics, Proteomics, and Systems

This web page was produced as an assignment for an undergraduate course at Davidson College.


Gene Assignment 1-Kindness Gene

Gene Assignment 2 - Genes Associated with Habitual Caffeine Consumption

Gene Assignment 3

Kindness in our Genes?


Is this guy empathic, social, and kind?

His genes may be able to tell us!


Hoping to make a great first impression on a blind date? Want that medical or graduate school admissions representative to think you are kind and caring? An observer's first impression of your personality might depend more on your genes than on your suit. This page will discuss research involving a SNP (rs53576) in the oxytocin receptor gene that correlates with social behavior. This investigation will compare and contrast two popular press articles, entitled “Social gene spotted in 20 seconds, say researchers” (BBC) and “Is empathy in our genes?” (CNN), with their primary source scientific journal article, entitled “Thin-slicing study of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene and the evaluation and expression of the prosocial disposition” (PNAS). When popular press articles attempt to report findings from a peer-reviewed article there are a few aspects that are conserved but there are also key points that are lost in translation. In order to compare and contrast the groups of articles in an organized fashion, the similarities and differences of the articles will be presented with examples aimed to present the genetic research.

Contrasting Motives and Audiences

Before discussing the specifics of the articles, it is important to understand the general differences, motives, and targeted audiences of the two groups of articles. In general the scholarly article is longer and broken up into distinct sections such as an abstract, introduction, methods, results, and discussion. The popular press articles are shorter, incorporate quotes from the researchers, and are not broken up into sections. The goal of scientific writers is to present the process of the scientific method in their paper by clearly stating their hypotheses, experimental design, results, and conclusion within the context of their specialty. Popular press reporters do not adhere to such a precise format of presenting the findings and focus on simply informing the public of the research methods and conclusions. Scientists provide sufficient scientific context for their conclusions and a detailed description of the methods. Doing so allows the readers to question the validity of the results based upon the experimental design, a privilege that the reader of a popular press article does not enjoy. In order to make an informed judgment regarding the importance of results and conclusions, the reader must have a clear understanding of the results within its specific context (Kua et al., 2004). In contrast, journalists report the findings of the researchers in a simple manner without trying to confuse the reader with complicated processes or details (Kua et al., 2004). This difference in style can be attributed to the contrasting motives and audiences of the writers. Scientists are generally writing articles in order to further the education of other scientists and in order to advance the field of science. Journalists intend to inform the general public of the important findings from a field that is often considered intimidating, while making money along the way.

Where to Start?

The best place to start any story is at the beginning. A quick glance at the titles of the two groups of articles will demonstrate a few similarities and differences. The popular press titles, “Social gene spotted in 20 seconds, say researchers” and “Is empathy in our genes?” are primarily written to catch the reader’s attention and to convince him or her that the article is worthy of reading. The peer-reviewed journal article title, “Thin-slicing study of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene and the evaluation and expression of the prosocial disposition,” is also written to catch the reader’s attention but in terms of being useful and less in terms of being interesting. The journal article title includes the method used, the gene being studied, and the human characteristics being examined. The CNN article simply poses a question to entice the reader and therefore only addresses the personality trait being examined and that the article involves genes. In fact, empathy is only one of the traits within the prosocial category, according to the researchers. At least the BBC article includes the length of the observation period and that the gene being studied involves social tendencies. In the journal article, the authors do not refer to the gene as the ‘social gene.’ Both popular press titles are not very informative or descriptive and could easily be misleading. In general, both groups of titles aim to entice the reader and provide the area of science being studied (genetics). However, the journal article title is more descriptive and informs the reader more accurately regarding the contents of the article.

Introducing, in this Corner: Research!

The introduction is the authors’ opportunity to provide the proper context for the current experiment. The scholarly article achieves this goal by providing information from previous experiments about oxytocin, oxytocin receptors, the rs53576 SNP variations, and the various relationships between these biological aspects and certain personality attributes. The information in the introduction increases the validity and relevance of the current research. The authors provide explanations for their line of thinking and supply evidence from previous research that the logic behind their proposed experiment is sound. This process is important as it allows the reader to follow the author’s logic and make objections wherever appropriate. The introductions of both popular press articles are written to attract the reader by relating the research to human interactions. They accomplish this goal by stating, “A large part of how we relate to people emotionally may be hardwired into our DNA” (MacMillan, 2011) or “it is well known that first impressions count, but they may also be enough to give insights into a person’s genes” (BBC News, 2011). This strategy contrasts with the goal of a scholarly article introduction, which emphasizes the scientific context with some mention of how the research could generally relate to life. While the researchers do attempt to provide an overall context, there is little effort by reporters to construct an efficient scientific context other than brief definitions. Both popular press articles attempted to provide background information, but were consistent with the complaints of most readers, which are a lack of information and a lack of context (Kua et al., 2004).

Both forms of articles introduce oxytocin but the popular press articles do so in a more general, simple manner compared to the scholarly article. For example, BBC reports, “The hormone oxytocin has a role in birth, production of milk, and bonding between mother and baby” (BBC News, 2011). However true this may be, it is not relevant to the current research and does not provide the proper context desired by the readers. CNN does a better job to provide appropriate facts for the readers by stating, “The brain chemical oxytocin – [is] often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ because it plays a role in social behaviors such as bonding, empathy, and anxiety” (MacMillan, 2011). Perhaps the BBC article is a poor example of the background information typically provided by a popular press article, as it does not mention that oxytocin is produced in and used by the brain and refers to it as “the ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ chemical,” without describing the reason for the common name (BBC News, 2011). The commonality between the popular press articles is the simplicity of the terminology and the information is provided in the form of definitions, instead of explanations of the processes or more in-depth descriptions. In addition to informing the reader that oxytocin is a neuropeptide produced in the hypothalamus and involved in emotional, social, mate and parental bonding processes, the scholarly article provides information about studies that show a relationship between personality traits and oxytocin levels, such as one study that showed that an increase in an individuals’ oxytocin levels results in an increase of attributes clustered into the general category of prosociality: trust, generosity, empathy and sacrifice (Kogan et al., 2011). Although the statements made by the peer-reviewed article are a bit more complex, they are not incomprehensible and put the current research into a more appropriate context.

In order for the experiment to be significant, one important fact must be relayed to the reader: previous research suggests that individuals homozygous for the G allele (GG) of the rs53576 SNP, located in an intron of the oxytocin receptor gene (chromosome 3p25), tend to respond to the needs of others more than carriers of the A allele (AA or AG) (Kogan et al., 2011). The scholarly article states this in their introduction and makes it clear that concluding this fact was not the goal of their research. Instead, this statement functions to establish a relationship between the difference in genotype and the targeted personality traits that would be identified through nonverbal cues. However, when the popular press articles reported this fact it is unclear whether the relationship was determined by past experiments or by the current experiment. Again, the proper context is not formed when the popular press article states, “Two variants of the ‘oxytocin receptor gene’ have been linked with social traits” (BBC News, 2011). Was this a finding of the experiment on which they are reporting or is this an attempt to provide context? Of the two popular press articles, CNN is more consistent with the scholarly article by providing a more sufficient scientific background for the study. CNN accurately states, “Previous studies have linked several personality traits to variations in this gene [OXTR]” (MacMillan, 2011). However, it then inaccurately states that the gene “acts as a docking station (or receptor) for the brain chemical oxytocin” (MacMillan, 2011). This statement is wrong, as the protein product of the gene is the receptor for the neuropeptide and not the gene itself. By attempting to simplify the information provided by the primary source, the popular press articles are unclear, confusing, and, at times, inaccurate. Generally, the popular press articles mention one important previous study and then begin discussing the importance of the conclusions, while the scholarly article sites numerous articles so that there is little debate about the researchers thought process. In line with providing information regarding the researchers’ thought process, the scholarly article focuses on the relationship between nonverbal cues, such as patterns of facial muscle movements, postural behavior, and tactile contact, and prosocial attributes such as trustworthiness, compassion, and kindness (Kogan et al., 2011). Both popular press articles focus more on the gene than they do on the nonverbal cues that were used to determine that the observers could differentiate between the two groups of subjects, which was the main result of the study.

Figure 1. Location of the oxytocin receptor gene and SNP rs53576 according to UCSC Human Genome Browser. Individuals who are GG at the SNP are more trustworthy, compassionate, and kind than those individuals who were AA or AG at the allele. The coded region of the gene is highly conserved among mammals, although the SNP is not conserved.

The OXTR SNP rs53576 is associated with social behavior, as homozygous individuals for the G allele (GG) have a lower risk of autism, consider themselves more empathic, having more positive emotions, are more social, and have more parental sensitivity than carriers of the A allele (AA, AG) (Kogan et al., 2011). Interestingly, the CNN and BBC articles also use this point. The inclusion of this more accurate and a bit more complex information suggests that perhaps the popular press articles include a mixture of overly simplified and a bit more complex information in order to reach a larger range of audiences. In contrast, researchers do not simplify some information in order to reach a larger audience. It is not acceptable in scholarly articles to simply state relationships, correlations, and definitions like those found in the popular press articles. While the popular press articles stay on the macroscopic scale, focusing on human interactions, the scholarly article incorporated studies ranging from the human to animal to microscopic level in order to explain any relationships or correlations that were mentioned.

At the end of the introduction of the scholarly article, the researchers clearly stated the goals of their experiment and their hypotheses. A statement of this sort is absent from both popular press articles as they provide the ‘answer’ of the experiment without informing the readers of the question. The goal of this study was to examine if the SNP variation is associated with nonverbal displays of prosociality (Kogan et al., 2011). CNN attempts to state a purpose as they begin their description of the methods with, “to explore the relationship between a person’s genetics and demeanor” (MacMillan, 2011).  It is ironic that much of the emphasis from the popular press articles did not relate to the nonverbal displays of prosociality in relation to the varying genotypes, which was the stated goal of the research. The scholarly article clearly states the three following hypotheses:

  1. Observers would consider GG individuals to be more prosocial than AA or AG individuals after seeing the individual interact with a person in need without hearing the interaction or being aware of the social context of the individuals;
  2. GG individuals would demonstrate their prosociality in the form of increased nonverbal displays of affection compared with AA or AG individuals;
  3. The variation in amount of displays of affection would be responsible for the different judgments of the observers regarding the prosociality of GG individuals versus AA or AG individuals
    (Kogan et al., 2011).

How did you do it!?

When describing the experimental design of a study, researchers often provide the details necessary to duplicate the experiment and the information needed to inquisitively evaluate the methods they used to produce the results. Popular press articles aim to provide the method in a simple and succinct manner, which occasionally results in the absence of important information. By not being presented with all of the important details regarding the methods, readers cannot form their own opinions regarding the integrity of the experimental design and rely heavily on the journalists for conclusions. In agreement with the primary source, both the CNN and BBC articles state that that 23 couples were observed in 20 second, silent videos while a moment of personal suffering was described to the subject by the partner (BBC News, 2011). Although it mentions the subjects were scored regarding their prosocial traits, it only cited caring nature and empathy and did not mention how the rankings were determined (BBC News, 2011). The CNN article accurately stated that the subjects were rated upon their perceived kindness, compassion, and trustworthiness based upon visual cues (MacMillan, 2011). Both the scholarly article and CNN stated that 116 observers were involved in the study to accumulate the prosociality rankings of the subjects (Kogan et al., 2011; MacMillan, 2011). Again the scholarly article provides more detailed information, in this case regarding the experimental design. The observers were chosen carefully so that the results were not biased by the frequency of genotype or gender: ten GG individuals (five of each gender), ten GA individuals (five of each gender), and three AA individuals (two men, on female) (Kogan et al., 2011). Then the observers determined using a seven-point scale how much they perceived the subject to be trustworthy, compassionate, and kind based upon nonverbal gestures, such as number of head nods, duration of eye contact, openness of arm posture, and whether the listener smiled (Kogan et al., 2011). CNN provided some information about the nonverbal cues in the form of a quotation from Dr. Sarina Rodrigues Saturn, the senior author. Even the description of the methods from the primary source leaves out some desired information; such as did any of the target individuals have previous knowledge of the divulged episode and how long had the couples been together. Both could have influenced if the target individual displayed a recordable affectionate gesture. This description of the experimental design allows the reader to realize the intensity of the situation being studied. Generally in research it is easier to detect results in extreme situations than it is situations that truly resemble life. Understanding the full design allows readers to realize that detecting the difference in genotypes during a highly emotional time does not necessarily mean that the same difference can be identified on a day-to-day basis.      

Want to see the data?

A major difference between the scholarly and popular press articles is that the BBC and CNN articles did not provide all of the results or any of the figures. Without the results it is difficult for readers to interpret or disagree with the conclusions presented by the journalists. The peer-reviewed article contained two figures and a detailed description of the experimental results that lead to their conclusions. This strategy allows readers to make their own judgments about the data and to agree with or challenge the conclusions of the authors. By not viewing a figure or the results from the research, readers of popular press articles are forced to take the journalists’, or indirectly the researchers’, conclusions as fact. Such a strategy accounts for the common exaggeration of popular press articles.

Scientists are taught to always want to see the data; however, journalists want to provide the conclusions without the evidence. It seems that the general public also desires to see the evidence from which the conclusions are made, which would be accomplished if figures and more results were included in the popular press articles (Kua et al., 2004). Both the BBC and the primary source stated that GG individuals were trustworthier, compassionate, and kind compared to AG or AA individuals (Figure 1) (Kogan et al., 2011; BBC News, 2011). Again the scholarly article is more detailed as it states that the differences in prosocial rating between GG and AA or AG allelic individuals were constant among the observers, which means that the results have a minimum amount of observational bias (Kogan et al., 2011). All three articles mentioned that of the top ten individuals determined to be most trusted, six were GG and of the ten least trusted, nine were AA or AG (Kogan et al., 2011; BBC News, 2011; MacMillan, 2011). However, only the primary source reported the results regarding the affiliative cues in connection with the varying genotypes and the prosociality rating (Hypotheses 2 and 3). GG subjects used more affiliative cues, such as head nods, eye contact duration, openness of arm posture, and smiling, than AA or AG individuals (Kogan et al., 2011). In fact, of the ten individuals displaying the most gestures, six were GG, while of the ten displaying the least amount of gestures, eight were either AA or AG (Kogan et al., 2011). Nonverbal affectionate cues were determined to be a highly significant predictor of the prosociality ratings determined by the observers (Kogan et al., 2011). The results provided by the scholarly article addressed all aspects of the study and answered all of the questions posed by the hypotheses. The popular press articles unfairly focused on what they perceived to be most interesting and did not report about the rest of the study. Ironically, what the popular press reported, that stranger observers could predict the genotypes of the subjects in 20 seconds, was only one of many important points made by the researchers. Additionally, the popular press articles failed to mention how the data was analyzed. For instance, the peer-reviewed article mentions the use of hierarchical linear modeling, least-squares regression approach, and a multilevel mediation approach to analyze the data (Kogan et al., 2011).

Figure 2. According to naïve observers GG individuals were determined to
be more prosocial than AA or GA individuals based upon 20-second, silent observation periods.
Prosociality ratings were assigned based upon the subject's display of trustworthiness, compassion, and kindness.
The error bars represent standard deviation.
Figure Permission Recieved from Dr. Aleksandr Kogan on February 4, 2012
Aleksandr Kogan, Laura Saslow, Emily Impett, Christopher Oveis, Dacher Keltner, and Sarina Rodrigues Saturn. 2011. 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. 48: 19189-19192.

Liberal versus Conservative Conclusions

In terms of reporting the conclusions of the research, journalists and scientific authors vary much in the same way as Democrats and Republicans. Journalists liberally make generalizations and name genes, while journal authors conservatively make claims regarding their research within the context of their specialty. For example, the title of the BBC article refers to the oxytocin receptor gene as “social gene” (BBC News, 2011). The primary source never refers to the gene in such a way and makes a point to dissuade their readers from drawing such conclusions by disclaiming, “We therefore suggest that variation in rs53576 is a contributing factor to people’s proclivity toward prosociality, although it is certainly not the only one” (Kogan et al., 2011). The difference between these statements is that one is scientifically accurate, while the other lacks the same integrity. Similarly to the genetics involved in determining your height, personality is not established by variations at one single gene but is affected by numerous other factors, such as environment, other genes, and epigenetics (the control of gene expression without changing the sequence). To credit the CNN article, it mentions a similar disclaimer in the form of a quote from an expert.    

The popular press articles tend to begin with the conclusion of the study instead of meticulously setting up the context and logic behind the experiment, as seen in the scholarly article. For example, the BBC article quickly states, “Researchers say people can spot whether a complete stranger has a certain ‘social gene’ in just 20 seconds” (BBC News, 2011). The CNN article partakes in a similar practice, although their sentence, in addition to containing the conclusion, informs the reader about the results and methods. However, the conclusions found in the peer-reviewed article are slightly different and an explanation, disclaimer, and suggestions for further research accompany each statement. The researchers concluded that allele differences predict observer’s judgments of presociality based on 20-second observations of nonverbal cues (Kogan et al., 2011). Variation in the demonstration of caring gestures between the two groups of genotypes correlated with the difference in the prosociality ratings (Kogan et al., 2011). GG subjects were determined to be more prosocial due to their display of more caring gestures (Kogan et al., 2011). The overall conclusion of the study is that the SNP known to predict prosocial tendencies is manifested through nonverbal cues that are reliable markers of the individual’s prosociality (Kogan et al., 2011). This example shows the tendency of journalists to generalize and emphasize a point that was not the main intention of the researchers. Additionally, popular press articles incorporate quotes from the researchers in order to inform the public of the conclusions. The provided quotes compensate for the liberal interpretations of the journalist. For instance, Aleksandr Kogan, the lead author, said, “Our findings suggest even slight genetic variation may have tangible impact on people’s behavior” (BBC News, 2011). The conservative nature of the researcher is evident by the use of the word ‘suggest’ and there is a stark contrast between ‘slight genetic variation’ at a SNP and the proclamation of a ‘social gene,’ as used earlier in the article.   

In the conclusion, the scientific article continues the theme it began in the introduction of providing sufficient context for the reader by discussing directions for future research. By providing information about past research in the introduction and ideas for future investigation in this section, the current experiment is put into the proper context. For example, the author of the original article states, “More research is required to understand how differences in this specific location of OXTR contribute to physiological processes that underlie social functioning” (Kogan et al., 2011). The popular press articles are ready to claim the gene as a social gene without further research being conducted.

Peer-reviewed articles tend to disclose the weaknesses or limitations of their research, which is not mentioned in the popular press articles. Due to the lack of details in the popular press articles, the reader is unable to interpret the potential flaws of the original study. For example, the scholarly article discloses, “It is also important to note that the present study featured a limited number of targets; thus, more work is necessary to replicate and extend the present results to a larger, more diverse sample” (Kogan et al., 2011). Again, the conservative nature of the authors is evident. Along these same lines, perhaps the most significant difference between a popular press and peer-reviewed article is the tendency of the journalists to inappropriately generalize. For example, the authors of the peer review article honestly state, “Several studies have documented that the relationship between rs53576 and social functioning is culturally dependent, and that the distribution of genotypes varies heavily by ethnicity” (Kogan et al., 2011). In an attempt to account for this dependence the study only involved Caucasians. However, this approach may limit the “potential cultural and ethnic biasing of [the] results, but it also limits the generalizability of the present findings” (Kogan et al., 2011). This information is immensely important when determining the true applicability of the results.It is curious that the authors delayed until the end of the second to last paragraph to disclose such valuable information, where it seemed as if they were generalizing throughout the paper. The popular press articles seem to have no qualms about generalizing the conclusions without this disclosure. In this respect the popular press article may not be scientifically accurate. 

What Have we Learned?

The significance of the genetic research is that the difference in alleles at the rs53576 SNP of the oxytocin receptor gene is correlated with personality traits, such as trustworthiness, kindness, and compassion, that can be identified rather quickly by a naïve observer based upon nonverbal affiliative cues, such as head nodding, eye contact, openness of arm posture, and smiling. It is interesting that the peer-reviewed article suggests that people’s friendship networks could align along a genetic basis and that people tend to have friends that share certain similar genes and differ at other genes (Kogan et al., 2011). As illustrated by this page, popular press articles and their primary sources have key similarities and differences. They provide similar information and attempt to outline the importance of the research, the method used, and the results gathered. However, popular press articles use quotes from experts and researchers, over simplify the research, and attempt to relate the findings to the overall human experience. Conversely, the scholarly article explained nearly every statement, related the findings to the scientific context, and included key information, such as the weaknesses of the experiment, future potential research, figures, and hypotheses. The largest difference between the two forms of articles is that the popular press style is basic but narrow, while the scholarly article was broad and comprehensive. Both the BBC and CNN articles only focused on a small portion of the research presented in the primary source.  



Aleksandr Kogan, Laura Saslow, Emily Impett, Christopher Oveis, Dacher Keltner, and Sarina Rodrigues Saturn. 2011. 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. 48: 19189-19192.

Eunice Kua, Michael Reder, and Martha J. Grossel. 2004. Science in the News: A Study of Reporting Genomics. Public Understanding of Science. 13: 309–322.

MacMillan, Amanda. "Is empathy in our genes?" CNN Health. 15 Nov. 2011. Cable News Network. 28 Jan. 2012 <>.

"Social gene spotted in 20 seconds, say researchers." BBC News Health. 14 Nov. 2011. British Broadcasting Company. 28 Jan. 2012 <>.


Kristopher Hendershot

Biology Major, Class of 2012


Genomics Web Page

Davidson College