Behavior Genetics

, Volume 49, Issue 2, pp 235–243 | Cite as

Understanding “What Could Be”: A Call for ‘Experimental Behavioral Genetics’

  • S. Alexandra BurtEmail author
  • Kathryn S. Plaisance
  • David Z. Hambrick
Original Research


Behavioral genetic (BG) research has yielded many important discoveries about the origins of human behavior, but offers little insight into how we might improve outcomes. We posit that this gap in our knowledge base stems in part from the epidemiologic nature of BG research questions. Namely, BG studies focus on understanding etiology as it currently exists, rather than etiology in environments that could exist but do not as of yet (e.g., etiology following an intervention). Put another way, they focus exclusively on the etiology of “what is” rather than “what could be”. The current paper discusses various aspects of this field-wide methodological reality, and offers a way to overcome it by demonstrating how behavioral geneticists can incorporate an experimental approach into their work. We outline an ongoing study that embeds a randomized intervention within a twin design, connecting “what is” and “what could be” for the first time. We then lay out a more general framework for a new field—experimental BGs—which has the potential to advance both scientific inquiry and related philosophical discussions.


G×E Randomized intervention Twin study 



The funding for this research was provided by the Templeton Foundation through the Genetics of Human Agency Initiative.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

S. Alexandra Burt, Kathryn S. Plaisance, David Z. Hambrick declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and animal rights

The described study has been approved by the Michigan State University IRB.

Informed consent

All participants give informed consent (informed consent is obtained by one parent since the twins are younger than 18 years old).


  1. Bartels M, Rietveld MJ, Van Baal GCM, Boomsma DI (2002) Heritability of educational achievement in 12-year-olds and the overlap with cognitive ability. Twin Res 5(06):544–553CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bronfenbrenner U, Ceci SJ (1994) Nature-nurture reconceptualized in developmental perspective: a bioecological model. Psychol Rev 101:568–586CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Burt SA (2015) Evidence that the GxE underlying youth conduct problems vary across development. Child Dev Perspect 9:217–221CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Burt SA, Klahr AM, Klump KL (2015) Do non-shared environmental influences persist over time? An examination of time and minutes. Behav Genet 45(1):24–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Burt SA, Klump KL (2014) Prosocial peer affiliation suppresses genetic influences on non-aggressive antisocial behaviors during childhood. Psychol Med 44:821–830CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Burt SA, Klump KL, Gorman-Smith D, Neiderhiser JM (2016) Neighborhood disadvantage alters the origins of children’s non-aggressive conduct problems. Clin Psychol Sci 4:511–526CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Caspi A, McClay J, Moffitt TE, Mill J, Martin J, Craig IW et al (2002) Role of violence in maltreated children. Science 297:851–854CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Deary IJ, Strand S, Smith P, Fernandes C (2007) Intelligence and educational achievement. Intelligence 35(1):13–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dickens WT, Flynn JR (2001) Heritability estimates versus large environmental effects: the IQ paradox resolved. Psychol Rev 108(2):346CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Downes SM (2017) Heritability. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition). In: Zalta EN (ed).
  11. Dweck CS (2006) Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York, Random HouseGoogle Scholar
  12. Dweck CS, Leggett EL (1988) A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychol Rev 95(2):256CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hastings JS, Weinstein JM (2008) Information, school choice, and academic achievement: evidence from two experiments. Q J Econ 123(4):1373–1414CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Haworth CM, Nelson SK, Layous K, Carter K, Bao KJ, Lyubomirsky S, Plomin R (2016) Stability and change in genetic and environmental influences on well-being in response to an intervention. PLoS ONE 11(5):e0155538CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kaplan JM (2000) The limits and lies of human genetic research: dangers for social policy. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  16. Kendler KS (2005) Psychiatric genetics: a methodological critique. Am J Psychiatry 162:3–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Lewontin RC (1974) The analysis of variance and the analysis of causes. Am J Hum Genet 26(3):400–411Google Scholar
  18. Lichtenstein P, Holm NV, Verkasalo PK, Iliadou A, Kaprio J, Koskenvuo M et al (2000) Environmental and heritable factors in the causation of cancer—analyses of cohorts of twins from Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. N Engl J Med 343(2):78–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Longino HE (2013) Studying human behavior: how scientists investigate aggression and sexuality. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Moffitt TE, Caspi A, Rutter M (2006) Measured gene-environment interactions in psychopathology. Perspect Psychol Sci 1:5–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Möller S, Mucci LA, Harris JR, Scheike T, Holst K, Halekoh U et al (2016) The heritability of breast cancer among women in the Nordic Twin Study of Cancer. Cancer Epidemiol Prev Biomark 25(1):145–150CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Nye B, Hedges LV, Konstantopoulos S (2000) The effects of small classes on academic achievement: the results of the Tennessee class size experiment. Am Educ Res J 37(1):123–151CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Pennington BF, McGrath LM, Rosenberg J, Barnard H, Smith SD, Willcutt EG et al (2009) Gene × environment interactions in reading disability and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Dev Psychol 45:77–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Plomin R (1990) Nature and nurture: an introduction to human behavioral genetics. Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Co, BelmontGoogle Scholar
  25. Plomin R, DeFries JC, Knopik VS, Neiderhiser JM (2013) Behavioral genetics, 6th edn. Worth Publishers, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  26. Purcell S (2002) Variance components model for gene-environment interaction in twin analysis. Twin Res 5:554–571CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Sauce B, Matzel LD (2018) The paradox of intelligence: heritability and malleability coexist in hidden gene-environment interplay. Psychol Bull 144(1):26CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Sesardic N (2005) Making sense of heritability. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Sisk VF, Burgoyne AP, Sun J, Butler JL, Macnamara BN (2018) To what extent and under which circumstances are growth mindsets important to academic achievement? Two meta-analyses. Psychol Sci 29:549–571CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Tabery J (2014) Beyond versus: the struggle to understand the interaction of nature and nurture. MIT Press, LondonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Tal O (2009) From heritability to probability. Biol Philos 24(1):81–105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Tucker-Drob EM, Bates TC (2016) Large cross-national differences in gene × socioeconomic status interaction on intelligence. Psychol Sci 27:138–149CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Tucker-Drob EM, Briley DA, Engelhardt LE, Mann FD, Harden KP (2016) Genetically-mediated associations between measures of childhood character and academic achievement. J Pers Soc Psychol 111:790CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Turkheimer E (2000) Three laws of behavior genetics and what they mean. Curr Dir Psychol Sci 13:160–164CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Turkheimer E (2004) Spinach and ice cream: why social science is so difficult. In: DiLalla LF (ed) Behavior genetics principles: perspectives in development, personality, and psychopathology. American Psychological Association, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  36. Turkheimer E (2011) Genetics and human agency: comment on Dar-Nimrod and Heine. Psychol Bull 137(5):825–828CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Turkheimer E, Haley A, Waldron M, D’Onofrio B, Gottesman II (2003) Socioeconomic status modifies heritability of IQ in young children. Psychol Sci 14:623–628CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. van der Sluis S, Posthuma D, Dolan CV (2012) A note on false positives and power in GxE modeling of twin data. Behav Genet 42:170–186CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Wahlsten D (1997) The malleability of intelligence is not constrained by heritability. In: Devlin B, Fienberg SE, Resnick DP, Roeder K (eds) Intelligence, genes, and success. Springer, New York, pp 71–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Whitmore D (2005) Resource and peer impacts on girls’ academic achievement: evidence from a randomized experiment. Am Econ Rev 95(2):199–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Woodward J (2016) Causation and manipulability. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition). In: Zalta EN (ed).
  42. Yeager DS, Romero C, Paunesku D, Hulleman CS, Schneider B, Hinojosa C et al (2016) Using design thinking to improve psychological interventions: the case of the growth mindset during the transition to high school. J Educ Psychol 108(3):374CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  2. 2.Department of Knowledge Integration & Department of PhilosophyUniversity of WaterlooWaterlooCanada

Personalised recommendations