The ‘Warrior Gene’ (MAOA) Predicts Behavioral Aggression Following Provocation

Proceedings of the National Academics of Science, 2009

Posted: 16 Feb 2010

See all articles by Rose McDermott

Rose McDermott

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) - Department of Political Science

Dustin Tingley

Princeton University - Department of Political Science

Jonathan Cowden

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Giovanni Frazetto

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Dominic Johnson

University of Edinburgh

Date Written: February 12, 2010

Abstract

Monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA) has earned the nickname ‘warrior gene’ because it has been linked to aggression in observational and survey-based studies. However, no experiments have tested whether the ‘warrior gene’ actually drives behavioral manifestations of these tendencies, especially in controlled experimental settings. We report a novel experiment, synthesizing work in psychology and behavioral economics, which demonstrates that aggression occurs with greater intensity and frequency as provocation is experimentally manipulated upwards, especially among low activity MAOA subjects. In this study, subjects paid to punish those they believed had taken money from them by administering varying amounts of unpleasantly hot (spicy) sauce to their opponent. There is some evidence of a main effect for genotype as well as some evidence for a gene by environment interaction, such that MAOA is less associated with the occurrence of aggression in a low provocation condition but significantly predicts such behavior in a high provocation situation. This new evidence for genetic influences on aggression and punishment behavior complicates characterizations of humans as “altruistic” punishers and supports theories of cooperation which propose mixed strategies in the population. It also suggests important implications for the role of individual variance in genetic factors contributing to everyday behaviors and decisions.

Keywords: MAOA, aggression, experiment, behavioral genetics, hot sauce

Suggested Citation

McDermott, Rose and Tingley, Dustin and Cowden, Jonathan and Frazetto, Giovanni and Johnson, Dominic, The ‘Warrior Gene’ (MAOA) Predicts Behavioral Aggression Following Provocation (February 12, 2010). Proceedings of the National Academics of Science, 2009, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1552099

Rose McDermott

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) - Department of Political Science ( email )

Dept. of Political Science
University of California
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9420
United States
805-893-6160 (Phone)

Dustin Tingley (Contact Author)

Princeton University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Corwin Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544-1012
United States

Jonathan Cowden

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

Giovanni Frazetto

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

Dominic Johnson

University of Edinburgh ( email )

Old College
South Bridge
Edinburgh, Scotland EH8 9JY
United Kingdom

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