(Guardian) Genes that make Luis Suárez impulsive may also make him a great footballer
The biological assets that helped Luis Suárez become a feared striker may be partly to blame for his urge to bite
From David Beckham’s infamous kick at France ’98 to Luis Suárez chomping Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder in Brazil last week, the history of the World Cup is littered with moments of impulsive aggression that appear to defy all rational explanation.
The story of human impulsivity stretches back deep into our evolutionary past. By nature, we are all prone to making quick, rash decisions that may lead to regret, and in some cases a four-month ban from international football.
Impulsivity is actually a survival mechanism and was essential in the African savanna where our species evolved around a million and a half years ago. For our ancestors, the ability to make split-second decisions could make the difference between life and death.
All of us have deep primal instincts but over the several hundred million years of evolution separating our reptilian ancestors from the first mammals, and eventually primates, the cognitive ability to exercise self-restraint has increased.
While most living things make this decision purely as a trade-off between risk and reward, only humans can decide to exercise self-restraint on the basis of how they think they will be perceived by others – an ability that emerged some time in the past 100,000 years or so.
“We evolved to be very social animals, living in large groups, and so we have developed inhibitory mechanisms in the more recently evolved parts of the prefrontal cortex,” explains Michael Price of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Brunel. “This is the social centre of the brain. Our big reason not to be impulsive is because of your reputation and how other people are going to judge you and perhaps ostracise you as we saw with Beckham in the aftermath of France ’98.”
However, certain people find it more difficult to control their impulses than others, and this is partly determined by their genes. The first link between genetics and impulsivity was discovered in Finland in 2010. Individuals who carried variants of the gene HTR2B were found to be far more predisposed to violent crime when intoxicated than others.
Since then, a whole system of genes has been implicated in making a person susceptible to impulsive, aggressive behaviour. One which is of particular interest with regard to sportsmen and women who are prone to the “red mist” is called Monoamine Oxidase A. Different people express this gene to different extents, and the combination of low expression ofMonoamine Oxidase A and high testosterone levels makes a person much more likely to lose control and become aggressive. This is especially true if the person had a difficult upbringing and suffered a lot of stress at an early age.
“From an evolutionary perspective, these genes govern the extent to which our mammalian brain can suppress the more ancient reptilian brain,” explains Professor David Goldman, chief of neurogenetics at the US National Institutes of Heath. “They alter the levels or the mechanisms of action of ancient chemicals called neurotransmitters which are involved in either the initiation or the inhibition of behaviour.”
The vast majority of people who are genetically susceptible to impulsive behaviour are able to suppress this behaviour. But being involved in a high-profile football match presents unique psychological challenges for such individuals. It’s one thing to retain self-control under ordinary circumstances and another with millions watching around the world as your tribe faces off against a rival tribe.
“All competitive team sports are effectively mimicking a very intense coalitional aggression situation,” Price says. “This is harking back to our ancestral environments when coalitional warfare between two tribes was fairly commonplace and your own fate was really wrapped up in how your coalition fared. We’re neurologically wired to be interested in the outcome, which is why so many people attach such incredible significance and importance to what’s going on between these two groups of men on a field.”
This intense, adrenaline-fuelled environment can result in deeply suppressed behavioural traits emerging that have not been seen before, despite the presence of officials and thousands of cameras poised to zoom in.
“These unique stresses are what really leads people into trouble, even if you have a lot of experience,” Goldman says. “Remember Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in the 2006 final? You may have walked the razor’s edge for years and years and never fallen off but suddenly you’re walking on that knife edge with a very high wind that you’ve never faced before.”
Actions made in the heat of the moment are a combination of genetic factors and, importantly, choice. Genetics may be a driving force but researchers agree that they should never be a reason to show someone leniency for breaking the rules of acceptable behaviour.
Intriguingly, the biological assets that make someone like Suárez such a feared striker – his rapid reactions and predatory goalscoring instinct – may also be behind his constant skirmishes with the rules.
“It’s kind of tragic,” Price says. “The same parts of his brain which allow him to make impulsive decisions and allow him to be a great player are also the things that cause him to sometimes cross the line and do these nutty things.”