Which is it, the way you were raised or the genes you inherited, that explain why forming personal and social relationships with others is easy or difficult for you? If you were raised in a supportive environment, one theory goes, you are likely to find forming interpersonal relationships easier as an adult.  Other evidence supports the argument that variations in the genes you inherited for specific neurotransmitter receptors in neural circuits regulating anxiety are responsible for whether you find it easy or difficult to form intimate and social relationships.  Blame your parents either way--either for being cold and depriving you of the affectionate, caring and loving environment other parents provided, or fault them for passing on “bad genes” for elevated anxiety and other personality weaknesses.   

The case for genes is backed by hard science.  Dopamine, oxytocin, opioid, and serotonin receptors are clearly involved in anxiety, mood, and caregiving behaviors.  Variations in these genes have been associated with success in forming social interpersonal relationships and other personality traits such as anxiety that figure into forming interpersonal relationships.  Studies of monozygotic twins, who share 100% of their genes as compared to dizygotic twins who share 50% of the genes, support the influence of genetics in facilitating social bonding, for example.  Particular variations of the serotonin receptor (HTR2A) have been identified in previous research as predicting levels of attachment-related anxiety in adults. 

A new study published in the May, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, based on an on-going investigation following a population of children from birth up to age 18, provides some new insight that may be surprising to some.

The study found that individual differences in interpersonal attachment styles as adults were correlated with many factors in childhood experience, including early maternal sensitivity to the child and absence of the father, but only weakly correlated.  The data also failed to provide strong evidence for genetic factors in forming interpersonal attachments as adults, except for a weak association with the HTR2A gene.  Individuals carrying a variation in the HTR2A serotonin gene, called rs6313 SNP, reported greater attachment-related anxiety than others, but the authors conclude, “Generally speaking, however, we found little evidence that adult attachment styles had temperamental or genetic antecedents.”   The study suggests that perhaps only 1% of variation in adult attachment success can be accounted for by genetics.  

The take-home message from this study is that even though developmental experience through childhood has a role, and genetics have an even smaller effect in explaining individual differences in forming adult attachments, both effects are relatively minor in the long-run.  This makes it difficult to point fingers of blame to either parent’s actions or genes.

Part of the explanation, the authors suggest, is that individual differences in attachment success by adults partly reflect the ongoing experiences that people have in their relationships, rather than factors in the distant past.  They point to studies showing that individuals tend to feel increased security on days when their interpersonal needs were fulfilled and decreased security when these needs were not satisfied.  Moreover, many factors are involved in the complex process of adult social attachment styles that go well beyond those contributed into the mix during early life or variation in any particular gene. 

This research does not discard childhood experience and genetics from being involved, but rather indicates that these factors form the foundation for building strong interpersonal relationships; the rest of the structure is built over time from many different contributing factors. 

Let’s also not forget that there is a world of other childhood and adolescent behaviors that are affected by genes and environment apart from the ease of forming interpersonal attachments as an adult that was the object of investigation in this study.  The study provided no data on another widely-held hypothesis for trouble forming interpersonal relationships:  blaming your spouse or significant other.

Reference

Fraley, R.C. et al., (2013) Interpersonal and genetic origins of adult attachment styles:  A longitudinal study from infancy to early adulthood.  J. Personality and Social Psychology 104, 817-838.

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