The Association for Psychological Science defines compassion as, “the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.” An outpouring of compassion has followed Sen. John McCain’s death. Another moving display occurred last December on the television show, “The View,” and involved Vice President Joe Biden and McCain’s daughter, Meghan. As she began to talk about Biden’s book and her father, she was overcome with emotion. Biden got up from his chair, moved to sit beside her, held her hand and consoled her. He not only sensed the depth of her feelings, he desired to help her through those feelings.
Though the majority of responses to McCain’s death have been compassionate ones, there have been some notable exceptions. Many Americans pointed out President Trump’s perfunctory tweet. The White House flag issue was also noted — first lowered to half-staff during the weekend of McCain’s death, raised back up the following Monday, then lowered again after condemnation from Republicans, Democrats and the American Legion. People noticed as well that Trump’s Instagram statement of sympathy to the family of Sen. McCain was posted on a photo of Trump, not McCain. It leads to the question — what makes some people respond compassionately while others do not?
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The answer may lie partly in our genetics. In an article in Psychological Science, (May 2012), titled “The Neurogenics of Nice,” scientists write that people who are most caring share a specific genetic variation called the GG genotype. This genotype is linked to the receptor for oxytocin, often labeled the “love hormone.” Someone with the GG genotype has great capacity for empathy while someone with the AA or AG genotype does not. It could explain why some people want to build walls while others invite opponents to speak at their funeral.
In addition, while AA and AG genotypes are shown to be not as compassionate, University at Buffalo researchers also link them with fear, finding that people who see the world as a frightening place are less likely to help others. Someone with the GG genotype, however, is the first person to jump in and save someone from a burning house or car accident. Could Trump’s genotype be the reason he desires to build a wall, disparages Mexicans and Muslims, encourages white South African farmers, creates zero tolerance and refuses to condemn Jason Kessler’s white nationalists?
On the other hand both Sen. McCain and President George W. Bush seem to display the GG genotype. In speeches last October they warned about isolationism, distorted nativism and protectionism. McCain said, “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century … for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems …” Meanwhile, Bush said, “We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism — forgetting the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.” Both appeared to argue against the use of fear to influence American policy.
It might then be tempting to use genetics as an excuse for uncompassionate behavior. Scientists at the University of Cambridge, Translational Psychiatry (March 2018), however, have found that genes account for only 10 percent of differences in compassion. Non-genetic environmental and cultural factors explain the other 90 percent. So it turns out we can’t blame compassion-less behavior entirely on our genes. And, more encouragingly, other researchers have found that compassionate acts inspire others to acts of compassion.
In 1991 John and Cindy McCain adopted a health-challenged baby from Bangladesh. Wes Gullett, former aide to McCain, described McCain’s response when he first saw Bridget upon picking up his wife at the airport. McCain asked, “Where is she going?” Cindy said, “To our house.” Gullett said, “I remember John’s face. That day he was not the tough war hero senator. He was like every other new father, full of love and emotion.” McCain’s first response was compassion. We don’t know if his compassion was because he had the GG genotype or because he spent five-plus years in a Vietnamese POW camp. But what we do know is that John McCain inspired others by his selfless acts. The outpouring of compassion over his death proves it.
Jane D. Maldonado is a California native, 27-year resident of Fresno, and longtime piano teacher