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). 1
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 re sult, 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.
- 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
- 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?
- 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?