Kindness in the blood: A randomized controlled trial of the gene regulatory impact of prosocial behavior

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2017 Jul:81:8-13. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2017.03.025. Epub 2017 Mar 31.


Context: Prosocial behavior is linked to longevity, but few studies have experimentally manipulated prosocial behavior to identify the causal mechanisms underlying this association. One possible mediating pathway involves changes in gene expression that may subsequently influence disease development or resistance.

Design, setting, participants: In the current study, we examined changes in a leukocyte gene expression profile known as the Conserved Transcriptional Response to Adversity (CTRA) in 159 adults who were randomly assigned for 4 weeks to engage in prosocial behavior directed towards specific others, prosocial behavior directed towards the world in general, self-focused kindness, or a neutral control task.

Results: Those randomized to prosocial behavior towards specific others demonstrated improvements (i.e., reductions) in leukocyte expression of CTRA indicator genes. No significant changes in CTRA gene expression were observed in the other 3 conditions.

Conclusion: These findings suggest that prosocial behavior can causally impact leukocyte gene expression profiles in ways that might potentially help explain the previously observed health advantages associated with social ties.

Keywords: Health psychology; Positive psychology; Psychoneuroimmunology.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Leukocytes / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Social Behavior*
  • Transcriptome*
  • Young Adult