Popularity Gene Found?

Study Shows Teens More Popular If They Carry Gene Linked to Rule Breaking

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 23, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 22, 2008 -- Do you carry the popularity gene?

Your genetic makeup can make you more likely to be liked, suggests behavioral geneticist S. Alexandra Burt, PhD, of Michigan State University.

Your genes don't confer popularity. That's for others to decide. But Burt suggests that those carrying specific genes tend to behave in likeable ways.

"The idea is that your genes predispose you to certain behaviors, and those behaviors elicit different kinds of social reactions from others," Burt said in a news release. "And so what's happening is your genes are to some extent driving your social experiences."

To support this theory, Burt focused on a gene that affects brain levels of the chemical messenger serotonin -- the 5HT2A serotonin-receptor gene. In earlier work, she found that college-aged men who carried the G variant of the gene were more popular than men who carried the A variant.

But why? Burt noted that rule breaking is a behavior linked to popularity among teenage males. Impulsivity underlies rule breaking -- and impulsivity has been linked to higher serotonin levels. Might the popularity gene have something to do with a predisposition to rule breaking?


Burt assembled more than 200 college men with an average age of 19 into two groups. One group met together to plan a party on a strict budget; the other met to plan a party for which the sky was the limit. Immediately after the planning session, individuals rated their peers on popularity. They also gave a DNA sample.

Sure enough, after analyzing the men's behavior while they planned the parties, Burt saw that men who advocated rule-breaking tended to be rated as more popular. And the rule breakers tended to carry the popularity gene.

"So the gene predisposed them to rule-breaking behavior, and their rule-breaking behavior made them more popular," Burt says.

Is the popularity gene limited to men, and to just one type of behavior? Burt is working on similar studies in females and will explore other genes and other social behaviors.

The Burt study is slated to appear in the April 2009 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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Burt, S.A. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, April 2008; vol. 96, manuscript received ahead of print.

News release, Michigan State University.

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