The field of behavioral genetics is focused on determining whether or not human behavior derives from one’s genes versus one’s environment. Behavioral geneticists seek to determine if the things that we do are the result of how we are wired or, alternatively how we choose or are conditioned to live our lives. A myriad of research over the last 20 years has found a genetic basis, at least in part, for everything from left-handedness to tongue curling to the ability to wiggle one’s ears. There have also been genetic bases identified for alcohol and tobacco addiction and some hypothesize that homosexuality has a genetic component. There is even an online searchable database called the Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) that is maintained by Johns Hopkins University and which lists over 2000 observable traits believed to have a basis in genetics. Lots of serious scientists are out there doing serious research in the behavioral genetics field.
And thank goodness for that, because if serious scientists in white lab coats weren’t bent over test tubes, we would not now know that they have discovered the gene believed to be responsible for infidelity and one-night stands. No, seriously. Somebody out there actually studied this. I am guessing it was a guy trying to figure out how to respond to his wife’s queries about unexplained absences and Motel 6 receipts in his sports coat, “No honey, it’s not like that…I was doing research!”
This research “Associations between Dopamine D4 Receptor Gene Variation with Both Infidelity and Sexual Promiscuity”, performed at the State University of New York in Binghamton, found that there is a certain type of dopamine receptor gene – DRD4 they call it – which appears to be highly correlated with whether or not men and women will fool around behind their partner’s backs. Researchers interviewed 181 “young adults,” 77% of whom had actually had sex. Apparently they were pulling subjects from a pool of young adults who were raised by wolves, because I am stunned to hear that there are 41 people out there in a college town who made it to young adulthood with their virginity in tact. Must be pretty slow on a Saturday night in Binghamton, NY.
Anyway, according to lead researcher Justin Garcia, who was quoted in Medical News Today,
“What we found was that individuals with a certain variant of the DRD4 gene were more likely to have a history of uncommitted sex, including one-night stands and acts of infidelity. The motivation seems to stem from a system of pleasure and reward, which is where the release of dopamine comes in. In cases of uncommitted sex, the risks are high, the rewards substantial, and the motivation variable – all elements that ensure a dopamine rush.”
Note to self: Dopamine Rush sounds like the perfect name for a cocktail.
Hey wait, did you hear that? It was the sound of 20 million bored spouses shrieking with joy at the thought of blaming their bad judgment on forces outside their control. “I’m sorry, dear, I didn’t mean to sleep with the cabana boy but my genes made me do it. Whaddya want for dinner?”
Researcher Garcia turns out to be a bit of a buzz-kill, however, as he does mention that there is some fine print: some people with the DRD4 genetic variation will not be unfaithful or promiscuous, and some people without the variation will be waking up next to someone who looked a lot better last night at the bar after that sixth Fuzzy Navel (Dopamine Rush?). In other words, Garcia admits that the DRD4 gene variation is associated with the promiscuous behavior but it is not clear that there’s a one-to-one correlation. He adds, “The study doesn’t let transgressors off the hook.” Damn, back to the drawing board on the excuse front. So long cabana boy.
In fact, the premise behind this study is pretty sketchy if you ask me. There is a mountain of research out there that suggests that there is no single gene for any particular behavior, even the fun ones. Behavioral traits seem to be quite clearly associated with multiple genes, as well as environmental factors, just like the genes that are associated with various diseases. Just because you have genes that suggest a pre-disposition to Parkinson’s or Diabetes or Breast Cancer doesn’t necessarily mean you should plan for the worst. Instead, it means you should make good choices and hope for the best while eating right, exercising and doing what you can to maximize good health.
Having what I have decided to name the “Charlie Sheen” gene, then, does not necessarily mean you are going to be photographed by TMZ as you skulk out of a hotel room in yesterday’s clothes. It might mean, however, that you should seriously consider cutting it off at 2 Fuzzy Navels and bring your pair-bonded partner, as the study calls him/her, with you to the bar.
The study ends by stating that further research is needed to better validate the connection between DRD4 and infidelity and other sensation-seeking behaviors. As it turns out, this DRD4 gene has been linked to all sorts of wild and crazy activities, such as gambling addiction, alcoholism and, of all things, a love of horror films. If I were going to lead the effort to further study DRD4, I’d head straight to Las Vegas and lurk outside the movie theater showing Paranormal Activity 2 to recruit my study subjects. And as I recall, the Venetian employs quite a few cabana boys…