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Genetic research and human behavior

RECENT DISCOVERIES have placed genetic research in the spotlight. People are now able to track their ancestry through analyses of their DNA, medical cloning technologies make front-page news, and burgeoning research in behavioral genetics continues to articulate how people are genetically predisposed to act in certain ways.

Yet one question that rarely gets considered is how people make sense of the barrage of information about how genes underlie and guide human behavior. Perhaps more problematic, how do people respond to suggestions that there are genes shared by their race or sex that may be associated with undesirable outcomes?

Last year former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers came under fire for questioning whether women might be underrepresented in science and math occupations because of innate differences between the sexes. On the one hand, this is a legitimate scientific question. Why not consider all possible relevant factors? This would be the best way to understand the problem, and it would certainly be done if the question was of less political significance, such as considering why the foraging behaviors of fruit flies differ for females and males. But the furor that erupted following Summers's comments reveals that many do not see innate sex differences in science aptitude as a hypothesis that people should dare suggest out loud -- especially not the president of Harvard. Is this uproar evidence of a political correctness that has spun out of control, or might there be some sound reasons to be cautious about the ways some kinds of scientific theories are communicated?

Doctoral student Ilan Dar-Nimrod and I conducted a couple of studies that shed some light on this question. We provided women with difficult math tests in a few different conditions. Prior to taking the tests, some participants learned of a theory that some genes that lie on the Y chromosome play a key role in math performance, and are thus absent in all women. Another group of participants learned of a theory that sex differences in math performance are due to childhood experiences, such as the way their mothers taught them numbers. Importantly, we made up these theories, although our participants didn't know that.

The women who heard of the genetic account for sex differences in math performance scored significantly worse on our tests than those who heard of the experiential account. Apparently, learning that experiences cause poorer math performance among females enables women to conclude that the stereotype might not apply to them. On the other hand, learning that women have "math-dumb" genes apparently caused participants to struggle on the tests.

This research underscores a rather obvious, yet challenging, point: doing research on people has different implications from doing research on fruit flies, because people are affected by the theories that they encounter. Learning of scientific theories changes the ways people look at the world and at themselves. Now, if all theories were communicated in such a way that people fully understood what was found, and could process that information in a detached and unbiased way, then scientists needn't concern themselves about how their ideas may be interpreted. But as our research shows, some ideas can produce undesirable effects, and it's critical for those in the idea-making business to be attentive to this fact.

What implications should this have for people studying politically sensitive questions regarding genes and behavior? First, this is not a call to censor science. Conceivably, someday, research might definitively identify genes that are associated with desirable outcomes that are not distributed equally across the population. Knowing more about the causes of inequities should enable us to better deal with those inequities.

However, as our research suggests, people often respond in rather fatalistic ways when they hear about genetic causes. We believe this is because most people have quite erroneous conceptions of how genes influence behavior. They seem to conceive of genes as something like ingredients in a recipe. Just as an extra cup of sugar will necessarily make the cake sweeter, people think that having a gene for obesity will inevitably make them heavier. However, genes are not the ingredients of our selves. The expressions of genes are governed by experiences and interactions with other genes, and they guide behaviors in probabilistic ways. Furthermore, genes can influence the ways we interact with, and are thus shaped by, our environments. The ways genes affect behavior are far more complicated than the ways that are typically summarized in university press releases or newspaper articles. In the end, these simplified stories can misrepresent genetic explanations for behaviors.

The next few decades of genetic research promises to provide us with an unprecedented opportunity to peer into the nature of our souls. We should venture with caution so we're not blinded by what we see.

Steven J. Heine is an associate professor of social psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

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