Daily Archives: January 13, 2012

The Superpower You Didn’t Know You Had

You’ve heard of radar and gaydar. Ever hear of aid-ar? That’s the word I’ve just coined for picking up on the altruistic tendencies of others. And the good news is, you all have it.

We already know that certain people are more primed to help than others. They’re more sympathetic, more likely to lend a hand when they see someone in a sticky spot. But what’s more remarkable is that, according to new research, all of us have the ability to detect this level of compassion and trustworthiness in total strangers. And we can do it in just 20 seconds.

In the study, participants watched videos of men and women doing nothing but sitting and listening as their partners described an experience in which they suffered. Within 20 seconds, the observers could pinpoint who had the “empathy gene.” It’s called GG, and it’s a variation of the receptor for oxytocin, that hormone that makes us want to go forth and cuddle.

So how does aid-ar work? It seems observers in the study were picking up on subtle behaviours like nodding and eye contact that can make a listener seem compassionate. And DNA testing proved that those listeners who were called out as empathetic were more likely to have the GG genotype.

Try it yourself: Watch five video clips here, and pick out the people you think have the most empathy. Then get the answers here. (I did, and I’m proud to say my aid-ar is in good working condition.)

Study author Aleksandr Kogan – who happens to be doing his postdoctoral studies at my dear alma mater, University of Toronto at Mississauga – says that these results don’t mean anyone with a different genotype is a nasty SOB. Other genetic and non-genetic factors can influence someone’s odds of acting with compassion.

But it’s still neat to know that we can quickly tell who’s more inclined to be kind. I wonder what other superpowers we possess without realizing it?