When we meet new people, we assess their character by watching their gestures and facial expressions. Now a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA suggests that those nonverbal cues are communicating the presence of a specific form of a gene that makes us more or less responsive to others’ needs.

The gene determines which type of receptor a person has for the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin has been implicated in a variety of positive traits, such as trust, empathy and generosity. The hormone is detected by our body’s cells via their oxytocin receptors. In a past study, psychologist Sarina Rodrigues Saturn of Oregon State University and her collaborators found that people who have a certain variation of the receptor gene are more empathetic than those with the alternative form of the gene.

In the new study, Saturn and her team showed volunteers 20-second silent video clips of individuals who were listening to their romantic partner recount an upsetting experience. The study participants watched for nonverbal behaviors, such as head nods and smiles, and rated every individual on a number of character traits. Those with the form of the oxytocin receptor gene associated with empathy were judged by the volunteers as being more trustworthy, compassionate and kind than those with the alternative form of the gene.

“These slight genetic variations do have a big impact on not only how you feel internally but also how people perceive you,” Saturn says, adding that impressions based on nonverbal cues can help individuals quickly choose compatible friends or romantic partners.

This article was published in print as "Genetic Gestures."