Resting Bitch Face Is in Your Genes

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Why you should care

So you can explain to your friends why you don’t think they’re that funny.

Hate to break it to you, but people judge books by their cover all the damn time, and the Book of You is no exception. Check out OZY’s series What’s in a First Impression to delve into the psychology of appearances, and how to hack it.

What if you found out you were genetically predisposed to being an asshole? Would you start taking night classes or hit up Amazon for self-help? It sounds like an if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest type of puzzle, but your day of reckoning may be en route — science is already pinning down the opposite side of the spectrum. A recent study from the American Psychological Association found that:

People who have two shorter serotonin transporter genes have a tendency to smile or laugh more easily than others. 

The popularity gene? The easygoing gene? The more-fun-than-you gene? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Scientifically known as 5-HTTLPR, the serotonin transporter gene is the same gene that’s linked with depression. Each person gets one copy of the serotonin transporter gene from each parent. And here’s where getting the short end of the stick might be a win: If your two copies of the genes are both short, smiles will light up your face more often, and you may laugh at jokes that may not be funny. 

The study involved 336 people and consisted of three experiments. In two of them, the researchers showed the subjects cartoons or film clips; in the third, married couples were asked to discuss something contentious. Previous research showed that people with this genetic variant (the “short allele”) had stronger negative emotional reactions, says Claudia Haase, the study’s co-author. This study found that people with the genetic variant also have stronger positive emotional reactions. “Thus, our study helps paint a more complete picture of the emotional life of people with the short allele,” she says.

What about other mixtures of genes? Having one long gene and one short gene will result in moderate expressions — nothing to write home about, but nothing to get mocked for either. Those with two long genes, however, may be doomed to “resting bitch face” — you know, when your natural expression makes you look like Charles Manson when you’re really only focusing on work or a letter to grandma.


But it turns out there is a downside to having those two shorter gene sets: mood swings. Payback for Suzy Sunshine? According to the studythose with shorter sets may indeed be more likely to smile, but they will also experience a larger range of emotions — from high positive attitudes to low depressing feelings. Haase says that in these studies people watched film clips showing others in distress or watched themselves sing karaoke. Across these different situations people with the short allele had stronger emotional reactions.

However, not all scientists completely agree with research on genes and human behavior. Robert Levenson, a senior author on the study, said that genes are “only part of the story” when it comes to emotional differences among people. “Clearly, this is an area where both nature and nurture are important.” Michael Skinner, a professor at the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University, sees genes as only a small part of a much bigger picture. “Although some genes or epigenetic events may be critical hubs or have high connectivity to other genes and epigenetic events, it is important in science today not to over-interpret the role of individual genes.”

So, maybe your shorter serotonin transporter genes do make you laugh more often. Or maybe you’re just a sucker for stupid jokes.


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