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Selfish dictators may owe their behaviour partly to their genes, according to a study that claims to have found a genetic link to ruthlessness. The study might help to explain the money-grabbing tendencies of those with a Machiavellian streak — from national dictators down to 'little Hitlers' found in workplaces the world over.
The researchers don't know the mechanism by which the gene influences behaviour. It may mean that for some, the old adage that "it is better to give than to receive" simply isn't true, says team leader Richard Ebstein. The reward centres in those brains may derive less pleasure from altruistic acts, he suggests, perhaps causing them to behave more selfishly.
Ebstein and his colleagues decided to look at AVPR1a because it is known to produce receptors in the brain that detect vasopressin, a hormone involved in altruism and 'prosocial' behaviour.
Long and short
There was no connection between the participants' gender and their behaviour, the team reports. But there was a link to the length of the AVPR1a gene: people were more likely to behave selfishly the shorter their version of this gene.
It isn't clear how the length of AVPR1a affects vasopressin receptors: it is thought that rather than controlling the number of receptors, it may control where in the brain the receptors are distributed. Ebstein suggests the vasopressin receptors in the brains of people with short AVPR1a may be distributed in such a way to make them less likely to feel rewarded by the act of giving.
Though the mechanism is unclear, Ebstein says, he is fairly sure that selfish, greedy dictatorship has a genetic component.
Researchers should nevertheless be careful about using the relatively blunt tool of the Dictator Game to draw conclusions about human generosity, says Nicholas Bardsley at the University of Southampton, UK, who studies such games.
His research suggests that players who routinely give money away as Dictators are also perfectly happy to steal money off other players in games that involve taking rather than giving. This suggests that the apparently more altruistic players in Ebstein's game may in fact be motivated by a desire simply to engage fully with the game, perhaps just because they feel that that is what's expected of them.
If that is true, then apparently ruthless dictators may be motivated not by out-and-out greed but by a simple lack of social skills, which leaves them unable to sense what's expected of them.
That certainly fits with the image of a naïve yet arrogant dictator with no sense of the inappropriateness of his actions and attitudes.