How we learn from our mistakes

“You have to learn from your mistakes,” I was often told when growing up. And, as it turned out, I am now a very smart person.

But some people can’t, according to a study out today in the journal Science ($ and completely ridiculous registration process.)

A translation on a Time Magazine science blog:

In a small study, the researchers scanned the brains of 26 men as they each performed a simple task: choosing one symbol from a pair of symbols. After each selection, the participant was presented with a smiley face or sad face, depending on the symbol he had chosen. All men were equally good at learning to pick the symbols that won them a smiley face, but some men were worse than others at avoiding the ones that resulted in sad faces. Those men, it turns out, had a particular gene variant, or allele, that reduces the density of receptors for dopamine — a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in motivation, pleasure and addiction — in certain areas of the brain. Brain scans also showed significantly less activity in those areas in response to the sad-faced negative feedback, in the men who had the allele. When it occurred, however, that brain activity was linked to activity in other parts of the brain that forms memories.

What are the future consequences — socially speaking — of learning that our actions and behaviors are not a matter of will, but a matter of genetics?