Scientists discover a gene for trust; here’s how this can be linked to good health

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If a distressed stranger knocked on your door and asked to use your phone, would you want to? How about lending them a fiver for the bus if they assured you they would come back and pay you back? In today’s broken world, trust seems elusive and divisions are deep. Many people find it difficult to trust strangers, perhaps especially those who are different from us.

But why? A recent breakthrough from our international team of researchers, published in Scientific reports, has shed light on the genetic basis of trust. We discovered that our ability to trust strangers may be more than just a social or psychological trait: it may be rooted in our DNA.

This is important because it turns out that people’s trust can actually be live longer and healthier compared to their more skeptical counterparts.

Research has shown that those who trust strangers have a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease, even when factors such as smoking, age and biological sex are taken into account. Yet understanding why this is the case remains elusive.

For decades, the study of trust has been the domain of social and political science, viewed primarily as a social construct. Two main theories have emerged to explain why some people are more trusting than others. One suggests that trust is a stable trait shaped by early life experiences.

The other states that it is influenced by that of a person continuous evaluation of the social environment. I can easily imagine that the answer to the standard question about social trust is, “Would you say that most people can be trusted, or can you not be too careful in dealing with people?” would depend on whether you had been robbed the day before, or whether you had recovered your dropped wallet.

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This is where my research comes in handy. I currently lead the Department of Genetic and Molecular Epidemiology at Lund University, Sweden. For the past fifteen years I have been searching for the biological basis of trust and its connection with better health. My latest study, involving 33,882 Danish blood donors, marks an important milestone in this endeavor.

Using genetic data and information about our participants’ tendency to trust strangers, we conducted the largest genome-wide association study (studies linking traits to genes) of social trust to date. We obtained individual levels of trust from participants’ responses to tailored and validated social trust questions. Our analyzes identified a single gene, PLPP4, that was strongly associated with the trait of trusting others.

We further found that the PLPP4 gene explained a substantial 6% of the variation in social trust within the study population. This means that if you take two people who have a similar upbringing, education and life experience, this gene alone could explain 6% of the difference in the extent to which they trust others.

This may sound like a small number, but it is an important finding in the field of genetics, especially when we consider the complexity of human behavior. To put this in context: a gene called “FTO” is often cited as an explanation for differences in body mass index among Europeans, but only explains 0.34% of these differences.

Fight or flight

But what does this mean in practical terms? I believe that the discovery of the ‘trust gene’ could serve as a bridge between biology and social sciences, challenging the traditional divide between the two fields. Furthermore, the fact that this gene is predominantly expressed in the brain raises intriguing questions about its role in shaping neural pathways and signaling mechanisms.

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While it is tempting to speculate that manipulating this gene could increase confidence, I must caution against such simplistic interpretations. Rather than directly affecting trust levels, this gene likely plays a role in shaping circuits in the brain related to our innate “fight or flight” survival mechanism.

This system, which is embedded in each of us, regulates our response to stress, through the release of certain hormones. While this is helpful in the short term, longer term exposure to stress hormones can be harmful to health. In fact, it has been associated with cardiovascular problems, anxiety and depression.

We suspect that the PLPP4 gene may somehow mitigate the fight or flight mechanism. And if our fight or flight system is less intense when we meet new people, it stands to reason that having an innate tendency to trust others can have significant health benefits. If trusting others acts as a buffer against stress and thereby lowers cortisol levels, this can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and depression.

The consequences can be profound. However, further research is needed to unravel the complex interplay between genetics, trust and health. That said, the discovery of a genetic basis for trust opens new avenues for interdisciplinary research and provides new insights into the complicated connections between biology, behavior and society.

As we continue to unravel the mysteries of trust, one thing is clear: understanding its genetic roots could be the key to fostering healthier, more cohesive communities in an increasingly fragmented world.

More information:
Celia Burgos Sequeros et al., A genome-wide association study of social trust in 33,882 Danish blood donors, Scientific reports (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-024-51636-0

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