“Tinted a Bit Darkly”

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Genetics makes some people more likely to see things in a negative light. So says a new study by psychology professor Rebecca Todd at the University of British Columbia.

In the study, 200 people viewed a series of words in quick succession. Some words had positive connotations, some were negative, and others were neutral. Afterword, they were tested on what they had seen.

People with a certain gene variant, called the ADRA2b deletion variant, were more likely to perceive the negative words than those who did not have it.

In explaining the study results, Todd suggested that people with the gene variant might be more likely to focus on possible hazards outdoors rather than just enjoying the beauty of nature. Or, perhaps they might look out at a crowd and be more likely to notice angry faces.

Just as people talk about optimists seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, Todd suggests the gene variant could influence someone’s general outlook on life. “This is like seeing the world through gene-colored glasses—tinted a bit darkly,” she says.

Todd’s study notes that the gene variant has also been associated with having more intrusive memories after a traumatic event. The research might help explain why that happens. Ideally, it could help therapists who counsel people recovering from such events.

Nonetheless, I’m wondering if the results are really as dark as Todd proposes. In her study, people with and without the gene variant both perceived positive words better than neutral words. Maybe people with the gene variant are just better disposed to perceive a range of emotionally-laden things.

In any case, whether we have the gene should not predetermine how we respond to something. Every day, we’re likely to perceive something negative happening. However, how we respond is up to us.

Ignatius of Loyola alluded to this when he talked about everything in life being an opportunity to turn towards God for consolation or away from God in desolation. More broadly, it’s the concept of free will. Or, if you’re not religious, just think about it as having a choice.

Maybe genes do have something to do with what we perceive and remember. But I like to think I have a choice in how I act. The challenge is to choose wisely.

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