60-Second Science

Genetic Condition's Interplay with Culture

Kids with Williams syndrome are more gregarious--but cultural norms modulate how gregarious they become. Steve Mirsky reports

Williams syndrome is a genetic condition, the result of a specific DNA sequence deletion. It’s marked by various health problems and low IQ, but also by an interesting behavior: the child with Williams syndrome is unusually gregarious. Now researchers at the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Salk Institute have studied how nurture and nature interact in Williams syndrome—they studied the condition across cultures that have different norms for sociability.  The study appears in the journal Developmental Science.


The researchers surveyed American and Japanese parents of Williams syndrome children about the kids’ social habits, such as their tendency to approach other people. In both countries, the Williams kids were rated as much more social their others in their age group.  But culture definitely played a role. Because what was considered by Japanese parents to be highly gregarious was behavior that in the U.S. was considered normal in non-Williams kids. Said one of the study’s authors, “We are more than the sum total of our genes.  We represent a dynamic interaction between our genes and the environment.”

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