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Using Variation in Heritability Estimates as a Test of G × E in Behavioral Research: A Brief Research Note

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Better characterization of the sources of phenotypic variation in human behavioural traits—stemming from genetic and environmental influences—will allow for more informed decisions about how to approach a range of challenges arising from variation, ranging from societal issues to the treatment of diseases. In particular, understanding how the environment moderates genetic influence on phenotypes (i.e., genotype–environment interactions, or G × E) is a central component of the behavioral sciences. Yet, understanding of this phenomenon is lagging somewhat, due in part to the difficulties of detecting G × E. We discuss the logic behind one of the primary ways to detect G × E: comparing heritability estimates across environments. Then, we highlight some pitfalls, with an emphasis on how very strong G × E can sometimes be undetectable using this method when high heritability is present in multiple environments. We conclude by forwarding some initial, yet tentative, suggestions for how best to address to the problem.

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  1. It is worth pointing out that debates about the nature, prevalence, and importance of G × E are not new in behavior genetics, and some of the very points we touch on here have been discussed previously. See for instance, Sesardic (1993), and the exchanges sparked from around the topic of non-additive genetic effects and reaction norms. Moreover, behavioral geneticists have, for decades, acknowledged pitfalls when testing for G × E and have been suggesting supplementary methods, so neither is this component of our paper particularly novel (see, for instance, Plomin et al. 1977). Our intention, then, is to revive interest in the topic across fields where the discussion has either faded, or has yet to take hold in general (e.g., criminology, sociology, etc.).

  2. It is worth mentioning that a biometric—or twin based—approach to testing for the presence of G × E in human data involves examining either differences in heritability estimates across environments, or differences in (raw) additive genetic variance across environments. For researchers using the approach described by Purcell (2002), it is the second strategy that is being employed.


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A Spark Microgrant from Saint Louis University provided funding for this project. Feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript (however, any errors and omissions are the product solely of the authors): RL Rodriguez, R Tinghitella, and A Burt.


This project was funded by a SPARK microgrant from Saint Louis University.

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Correspondence to Kasey D. Fowler-Finn.

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Fowler-Finn, K.D., Boutwell, B. Using Variation in Heritability Estimates as a Test of G × E in Behavioral Research: A Brief Research Note. Behav Genet 49, 340–346 (2019).

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