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11.3 Is Personality More Nature or More Nurture? Behavioral and Molecular Genetics

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain how genes transmit personality from one generation to the next.
  2. Outline the methods of behavioral genetics studies and the conclusions that we can draw from them about the determinants of personality.
  3. Explain how molecular genetics research helps us understand the role of genetics in personality.

One question that is exceedingly important for the study of personality concerns the extent to which it is the result of nature or nurture. If nature is more important, then our personalities will form early in our lives and will be difficult to change later. If nurture is more important, however, then our experiences are likely to be particularly important, and we may be able to flexibly alter our personalities over time. In this section we will see that the personality traits of humans and animals are determined in large part by their genetic makeup, and thus it is no surprise that identical twins Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein turned out to be very similar even though they had been raised separately. But we will also see that genetics does not determine everything.

In the nucleus of each cell in your body are 23 pairs of chromosomes. One of each pair comes from your father, and the other comes from your mother. The chromosomes are made up of strands of the molecule DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), and the DNA is grouped into segments known as genes. A geneThe basic biological unit that transmits characteristics from one generation to the next. is the basic biological unit that transmits characteristics from one generation to the next. Human cells have about 25,000 genes.

The genes of different members of the same species are almost identical. The DNA in your genes, for instance, is about 99.9% the same as the DNA in my genes and in the DNA of every other human being. These common genetic structures lead members of the same species to be born with a variety of behaviors that come naturally to them and that define the characteristics of the species. These abilities and characteristics are known as instinctsA complex inborn pattern of behaviors that help ensure survival and reproduction.complex inborn patterns of behaviors that help ensure survival and reproduction (Tinbergen, 1951).Tinbergen, N. (1951). The study of instinct (1st ed.). Oxford, England: Clarendon Press. Different animals have different instincts. Birds naturally build nests, dogs are naturally loyal to their human caretakers, and humans instinctively learn to walk and to speak and understand language.

But the strength of different traits and behaviors also varies within species. Rabbits are naturally fearful, but some are more fearful than others; some dogs are more loyal than others to their caretakers; and some humans learn to speak and write better than others do. These differences are determined in part by the small amount (in humans, the 0.1%) of the differences in genes among the members of the species.

Personality is not determined by any single gene, but rather by the actions of many genes working together. There is no “IQ gene” that determines intelligence and there is no “good marriage partner gene” that makes a person a particularly good marriage bet. Furthermore, even working together, genes are not so powerful that they can control or create our personality. Some genes tend to increase a given characteristic and others work to decrease that same characteristic—the complex relationship among the various genes, as well as a variety of random factors, produces the final outcome. Furthermore, genetic factors always work with environmental factors to create personality. Having a given pattern of genes doesn’t necessarily mean that a particular trait will develop, because some traits might occur only in some environments. For example, a person may have a genetic variant that is known to increase his or her risk for developing emphysema from smoking. But if that person never smokes, then emphysema most likely will not develop.

Studying Personality Using Behavioral Genetics

Perhaps the most direct way to study the role of genetics in personality is to selectively breed animals for the trait of interest. In this approach the scientist chooses the animals that most strongly express the personality characteristics of interest and breeds these animals with each other. If the selective breeding creates offspring with even stronger traits, then we can assume that the trait has genetic origins. In this manner, scientists have studied the role of genetics in how worms respond to stimuli, how fish develop courtship rituals, how rats differ in play, and how pigs differ in their responses to stress.

Although selective breeding studies can be informative, they are clearly not useful for studying humans. For this psychologists rely on behavioral geneticsA variety of research techniques that scientists use to learn about the genetic and environmental influences on human behavior by comparing the traits of biologically and nonbiologically related family members.a variety of research techniques that scientists use to learn about the genetic and environmental influences on human behavior by comparing the traits of biologically and nonbiologically related family members (Baker, 2010).Baker, C. (2004). Behavioral genetics: An introduction to how genes and environments interact through development to shape differences in mood, personality, and intelligence. Retrieved from http://www.aaas.org/spp/bgenes/Intro.pdf Behavioral genetics is based on the results of family studies, twin studies, and adoptive studies.

A family studyA behavioral genetics study that starts with one person who has a trait of interest and examines the individual’s family tree to determine the extent to which other family members also have the trait. starts with one person who has a trait of interest—for instance, a developmental disorder such as autism—and examines the individual’s family tree to determine the extent to which other members of the family also have the trait. The presence of the trait in first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, and children) is compared to the prevalence of the trait in second-degree relatives (aunts, uncles, grandchildren, grandparents, and nephews or nieces) and in more distant family members. The scientists then analyze the patterns of the trait in the family members to see the extent to which it is shared by closer and more distant relatives.

Although family studies can reveal whether a trait runs in a family, it cannot explain why. In a twin studyA behavioral genetics study in which the data from many pairs of twins are collected and the rates of similarity for identical and fraternal pairs are compared., researchers study the personality characteristics of twins. Twin studies rely on the fact that identical (or monozygotic) twins have essentially the same set of genes, while fraternal (or dizygotic) twins have, on average, a half-identical set. The idea is that if the twins are raised in the same household, then the twins will be influenced by their environments to an equal degree, and this influence will be pretty much equal for identical and fraternal twins. In other words, if environmental factors are the same, then the only factor that can make identical twins more similar than fraternal twins is their greater genetic similarity.

In a twin study, the data from many pairs of twins are collected and the rates of similarity for identical and fraternal pairs are compared. A correlation coefficient is calculated that assesses the extent to which the trait for one twin is associated with the trait in the other twin. Twin studies divide the influence of nature and nurture into three parts:

  • Heritability (i.e., genetic influence) is indicated when the correlation coefficient for identical twins exceeds that for fraternal twins, indicating that shared DNA is an important determinant of personality.
  • Shared environment determinants are indicated when the correlation coefficients for identical and fraternal twins are greater than zero and also very similar. These correlations indicate that both twins are having experiences in the family that make them alike.
  • Nonshared environment is indicated when identical twins do not have similar traits. These influences refer to experiences that are not accounted for either by heritability or by shared environmental factors. Nonshared environmental factors are the experiences that make individuals within the same family less alike. If a parent treats one child more affectionately than another, and as a consequence this child ends up with higher self-esteem, the parenting in this case is a nonshared environmental factor.

In the typical twin study, all three sources of influence are operating simultaneously, and it is possible to determine the relative importance of each type.

An adoption studyA behavioral genetics study that compares biologically related people, including twins, who have been reared either separately or apart. compares biologically related people, including twins, who have been reared either separately or apart. Evidence for genetic influence on a trait is found when children who have been adopted show traits that are more similar to those of their biological parents than to those of their adoptive parents. Evidence for environmental influence is found when the adoptee is more like his or her adoptive parents than the biological parents.

The results of family, twin, and adoption studies are combined to get a better idea of the influence of genetics and environment on traits of interest. Table 11.6 "Data From Twin and Adoption Studies on the Heritability of Various Characteristics" presents data on the correlations and heritability estimates for a variety of traits based on the results of behavioral genetics studies (Bouchard, Lykken, McGue, Segal, & Tellegen, 1990).Bouchard, T. J., Lykken, D. T., McGue, M., Segal, N. L., & Tellegen, A. (1990). Sources of human psychological differences: The Minnesota study of twins reared apart. Science, 250(4978), 223–228. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/250/4978/223

Table 11.6 Data From Twin and Adoption Studies on the Heritability of Various Characteristics

Correlation between children raised together Correlation between children raised apart Estimated percent of total due to
Identical twins Fraternal twins Identical twins Fraternal twins Heritability (%) Shared environment (%) Nonshared environment (%)
Age of puberty 45 5 50
Aggression 0.43 0.14 0.46 0.06
Alzheimer disease 0.54 0.16
Fingerprint patterns 0.96 0.47 0.96 0.47 100 0 0
General cognitive ability 56 0 44
Likelihood of divorce 0.52 0.22
Sexual orientation 0.52 0.22 18–39 0–17 61–66
Big Five dimensions 40–50
This table presents some of the observed correlations and heritability estimates for various characteristics.

If you look in the second column of Table 11.6 "Data From Twin and Adoption Studies on the Heritability of Various Characteristics", you will see the observed correlations for the traits between identical twins who have been raised together in the same house by the same parents. This column represents the pure effects of genetics, in the sense that environmental differences have been controlled to be a small as possible. You can see that these correlations are higher for some traits than for others. Fingerprint patterns are very highly determined by our genetics (r = .96), whereas the Big Five trait dimensions have a heritability of 40–50%.

You can also see from the table that, overall, there is more influence of nature than of parents. Identical twins, even when they are raised in separate households by different parents (column 4), turn out to be quite similar in personality, and are more similar than fraternal twins who are raised in separate households (column 5). These results show that genetics has a strong influence on personality, and helps explain why Elyse and Paula were so similar when they finally met.

Despite the overall role of genetics, you can see in Table 11.6 "Data From Twin and Adoption Studies on the Heritability of Various Characteristics" that the correlations between identical twins (column 2) and heritability estimates for most traits (column 6) are substantially less than 1.00, showing that the environment also plays an important role in personality (Turkheimer & Waldron, 2000).Turkheimer, E., & Waldron, M. (2000). Nonshared environment: A theoretical, methodological, and quantitative review. Psychological Bulletin, 126(1), 78–108. For instance, for sexual orientation the estimates of heritability vary from 18% to 39% of the total across studies, suggesting that 61% to 82% of the total influence is due to environment.

You might at first think that parents would have a strong influence on the personalities of their children, but this would be incorrect. As you can see by looking in column 7 of Table 11.6 "Data From Twin and Adoption Studies on the Heritability of Various Characteristics", research finds that the influence of shared environment (i.e., the effects of parents or other caretakers) plays little or no role in adult personality (Harris, 2006).Harris, J. R. (2006). No two alike: Human nature and human individuality. New York, NY: Norton. Shared environment does influence the personality and behavior of young children, but this influence decreases rapidly as the child grows older. By the time we reach adulthood, the impact of shared environment on our personalities is weak at best (Roberts & DelVecchio, 2000).Roberts, B. W., & DelVecchio, W. F. (2000). The rank-order consistency of personality traits from childhood to old age: A quantitative review of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin, 126(1), 3–25. What this means is that, although parents must provide a nourishing and stimulating environment for children, no matter how hard they try they are not likely to be able to turn their children into geniuses or into professional athletes, nor will they be able to turn them into criminals.

If parents are not providing the environmental influences on the child, then what is? The last column in Table 11.6 "Data From Twin and Adoption Studies on the Heritability of Various Characteristics", the influence of nonshared environment, represents whatever is “left over” after removing the effects of genetics and parents. You can see that these factors—the largely unknown things that happen to us that make us different from other people—often have the largest influence on personality.

Studying Personality Using Molecular Genetics

In addition to the use of behavioral genetics, our understanding of the role of biology in personality recently has been dramatically increased through the use of molecular geneticsThe study of which genes are associated with which personality traits., which is the study of which genes are associated with which personality traits (Goldsmith et al., 2003 Strachan & Read, 1999).Goldsmith, H., Gernsbacher, M. A., Crabbe, J., Dawson, G., Gottesman, I. I., Hewitt, J.,…Swanson, J. (2003). Research psychologists’ roles in the genetic revolution. American Psychologist, 58(4), 318–319; Strachan, T., & Read, A. P. (1999). Human molecular genetics (2nd ed.). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/bookshelf/br.fcgi?book=hmg&part=A2858 These advances have occured as a result of new knowledge about the structure of human DNA made possible through the Human Genome Project and related work that has identified the genes in the human body (Human Genome Project, 2010).Human Genome Project. (2010). Information. Retrieved from http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/home.shtml Molecular genetics researchers have also developed new techniques that allow them to find the locations of genes within chromosomes and to identify the effects those genes have when activated or deactivated.

Figure 11.13

These “knockout” mice are participating in studies in which some of their genes have been deactivated to determine the influence of the genes on behavior.

One approach that can be used in animals, usually in laboratory mice, is the knockout study. In this approach the researchers use specialized techniques to remove or modify the influence of a gene in a line of “knockout” mice (Crusio, Goldowitz, Holmes, & Wolfer, 2009).Crusio, W. E., Goldowitz, D., Holmes, A., & Wolfer, D. (2009). Standards for the publication of mouse mutant studies. Genes, Brain & Behavior, 8(1), 1–4. The researchers harvest embryonic stem cells from mouse embryos and then modify the DNA of the cells. The DNA is created such that the action of certain genes will be eliminated or “knocked out.” The cells are then injected into the embryos of other mice that are implanted into the uteruses of living female mice. When these animals are born, they are studied to see whether their behavior differs from a control group of normal animals. Research has found that removing or changing genes in mice can affect their anxiety, aggression, learning, and socialization patterns.

In humans, a molecular genetics study normally begins with the collection of a DNA sample from the participants in the study, usually by taking some cells from the inner surface of the cheek. In the lab, the DNA is extracted from the sampled cells and is combined with a solution containing a marker for the particular genes of interest as well as a fluorescent dye. If the gene is present in the DNA of the individual, then the solution will bind to that gene and activate the dye. The more the gene is expressed, the stronger the reaction.

Figure 11.14

Researchers use dyes, such as these in a sample of stem cells, to determine the action of genes from DNA samples.

In one common approach, DNA is collected from people who have a particular personality characteristic and also from people who do not. The DNA of the two groups is compared to see which genes differ between them. These studies are now able to compare thousands of genes at the same time. Research using molecular genetics has found genes associated with a variety of personality traits including novelty-seeking (Ekelund, Lichtermann, Järvelin, & Peltonen, 1999),Ekelund, J., Lichtermann, D., Järvelin, M. R., & Peltonen, L. (1999). Association between novelty seeking and the type 4 dopamine receptor gene in a large Finnish cohort sample. American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 1453–1455. attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (Waldman & Gizer, 2006),Waldman, I. D., & Gizer, I. R. (2006). The genetics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Clinical Psychology Review, 26(4), 396–432. and smoking behavior (Thorgeirsson et al., 2008).Thorgeirsson, T. E., Geller, F., Sulem, P., Rafnar, T., Wiste, A., Magnusson, K. P.,…Stefansson, K. (2008). A variant associated with nicotine dependence, lung cancer and peripheral arterial disease. Nature, 452(7187), 638–641.

Reviewing the Literature: Is Our Genetics Our Destiny?

Over the past two decades scientists have made substantial progress in understanding the important role of genetics in behavior. Behavioral genetics studies have found that, for most traits, genetics is more important than parental influence. And molecular genetics studies have begun to pinpoint the particular genes that are causing these differences. The results of these studies might lead you to believe that your destiny is determined by your genes, but this would be a mistaken assumption.

For one, the results of all research must be interpreted carefully. Over time we will learn even more about the role of genetics, and our conclusions about its influence will likely change. Current research in the area of behavioral genetics is often criticized for making assumptions about how researchers categorize identical and fraternal twins, about whether twins are in fact treated in the same way by their parents, about whether twins are representative of children more generally, and about many other issues. Although these critiques may not change the overall conclusions, it must be kept in mind that these findings are relatively new and will certainly be updated with time (Plomin, 2000).Plomin, R. (2000). Behavioural genetics in the 21st century. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 24(1), 30–34.

Furthermore, it is important to reiterate that although genetics is important, and although we are learning more every day about its role in many personality variables, genetics does not determine everything. In fact, the major influence on personality is nonshared environmental influences, which include all the things that occur to us that make us unique individuals. These differences include variability in brain structure, nutrition, education, upbringing, and even interactions among the genes themselves.

The genetic differences that exist at birth may be either amplified or diminished over time through environmental factors. The brains and bodies of identical twins are not exactly the same, and they become even more different as they grow up. As a result, even genetically identical twins have distinct personalities, resulting in large part from environmental effects.

Because these nonshared environmental differences are nonsystematic and largely accidental or random, it will be difficult to ever determine exactly what will happen to a child as he or she grows up. Although we do inherit our genes, we do not inherit personality in any fixed sense. The effect of our genes on our behavior is entirely dependent upon the context of our life as it unfolds day to day. Based on your genes, no one can say what kind of human being you will turn out to be or what you will do in life.

Key Takeaways

  • Genes are the basic biological units that transmit characteristics from one generation to the next.
  • Personality is not determined by any single gene, but rather by the actions of many genes working together.
  • Behavioral genetics refers to a variety of research techniques that scientists use to learn about the genetic and environmental influences on human behavior.
  • Behavioral genetics is based on the results of family studies, twin studies, and adoptive studies.
  • Overall, genetics has more influence than do parents on shaping our personality.
  • Molecular genetics is the study of which genes are associated with which personality traits.
  • The largely unknown environmental influences, known as the nonshared environmental effects, have the largest impact on personality. Because these differences are nonsystematic and largely accidental or random, we do not inherit our personality in any fixed sense.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Think about the twins you know. Do they seem to be very similar to each other, or does it seem that their differences outweigh their similarities?
  2. Describe the implications of the effects of genetics on personality, overall. What does it mean to say that genetics “determines” or “does not determine” our personality?