Behavior Genetics

, Volume 49, Issue 2, pp 196–210 | Cite as

Interpreting Behavior Genetic Models: Seven Developmental Processes to Understand

  • Daniel A. BrileyEmail author
  • Jonathan Livengood
  • Jaime Derringer
  • Elliot M. Tucker-Drob
  • R. Chris Fraley
  • Brent W. Roberts
Original Research


Behavior genetic findings figure in debates ranging from urgent public policy matters to perennial questions about the nature of human agency. Despite a common set of methodological tools, behavior genetic studies approach scientific questions with potentially divergent goals. Some studies may be interested in identifying a complete model of how individual differences come to be (e.g., identifying causal pathways among genotypes, environments, and phenotypes across development). Other studies place primary importance on developing models with predictive utility, in which case understanding of underlying causal processes is not necessarily required. Although certainly not mutually exclusive, these two goals often represent tradeoffs in terms of costs and benefits associated with various methodological approaches. In particular, given that most empirical behavior genetic research assumes that variance can be neatly decomposed into independent genetic and environmental components, violations of model assumptions have different consequences for interpretation, depending on the particular goals. Developmental behavior genetic theories postulate complex transactions between genetic variation and environmental experiences over time, meaning assumptions are routinely violated. Here, we consider two primary questions: (1) How might the simultaneous operation of several mechanisms of gene–environment (GE)-interplay affect behavioral genetic model estimates? (2) At what level of GE-interplay does the ‘gloomy prospect’ of unsystematic and non-replicable genetic associations with a phenotype become an unavoidable certainty?


Gene–environment interplay Human agency Personality Cognitive ability Developmental genetics 



The production of this manuscript was supported by a Grant from the John Templeton Foundation (JTF58792).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

Daniel A. Briley, Jonathan Livengood, Jaime Derringer, Elliot M. Tucker-Drob, R. Chris Fraley, and Brent W. Roberts declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and animal rights and informed consent

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel A. Briley
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jonathan Livengood
    • 2
  • Jaime Derringer
    • 1
  • Elliot M. Tucker-Drob
    • 3
  • R. Chris Fraley
    • 1
  • Brent W. Roberts
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignChampaignUSA
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignChampaignUSA
  3. 3.Department of Psychology and Population Research CenterUniversity of Texas at AustinAustinUSA

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