Optimism, Self-Esteem and a Feeling of Mastery?

Oxytocin receptor is the gene that responds to stress

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) A long-standing debate in the psychological community is whether traits such as self-esteem, optimism and mastery - the belief that you have control over your own life - are genetically imbedded or developed throughout life.

For the first time, scientists have found the gene that is responsible for these feelings, along with how well we cope with stress and depression.

"There is a gene linked to self-esteem and stress levels."

Shelley E. Taylor, professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, was the first to identify the oxytocin receptor gene, or OXTR. The gene regulates oxytocin, a hormone that increases in response to stress, and is partly responsible for skills such as empathy and relating well to others socially.

OXTR is the first gene identified that is associated with psychological resources. Taylor linked the gene to a person's feelings of optimism, self-esteem and mastery over their own life - all critical resources for coping with depression and stress.

"I have been looking for this gene for a few years, and it is not the gene I expected," Taylor said. The research involved 326 people who completed self-assessment questionnaires about their psychological outlook. Researchers compared the results with variations in the OXTR gene, obtained from participants' DNA via a saliva swab.

OXTR has two variants: adenine (A) and guanine (G). Everyone has two variants in their OXTR gene, either AA, AG or GG.

People who carry at least one of the A variants have lower social skills, more sensitivity to stress and worse mental health outcomes. They also have lower levels of optimism, self-esteem and mastery than do people with two G variants.

Taylor calls the findings very strong and highly significant. "Sometimes people are skeptical that genes predict any kind of behavior or psychological state. I think we show conclusively that they do," she said. She added that the gene is only one factor, and positive environmental factors also play a strong role in these attributes. Additionally, people with the A variant can still learn coping skills to overcome depression and stress.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Review Date: 
September 19, 2011
Last Updated:
September 19, 2011