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What Do People Know About the Heritability of Sleep?


Study Objectives

Twin studies have provided data about the relative weight of genetic and environmental factors on sleep variables over the last few decades. However, heritability is a non-intuitive concept and it is often misunderstood even amongst the scientific community. This study aimed to analyze: (1) understanding of the meaning of heritability of insomnia; (2) the accuracy of estimations of heritability in the general population regarding three sleep traits (sleep duration, sleep quality and insomnia); (3) perceptions of the effectiveness of different treatments for insomnia depending on how the disorder is presented (i.e. having an environmental or genetic etiology) and whether the subject’s estimate of genetic influence on sleep traits impacted beliefs about the effectiveness of different treatments.


Participants (N = 3658) completed a survey which included: questions about general genetic knowledge; a specific question about the meaning of heritability; estimates of heritability of three different sleep traits; and the effectiveness of different treatments for insomnia depending on how the etiology of this condition was presented.


Fewer than 25% of the participants selected the correct description of the heritability of insomnia. Almost half of the sample incorrectly believed that heritability refers to the chance of passing a disorder onto their children. We also found that participants provided different estimates for the effectiveness of different treatments depending on the presumed etiology of the disorder.


Most people do not have accurate knowledge about the concept of heritability. People’s assumptions about the etiology of a disorder may influence which treatments they consider most effective.

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J.J.M-V. was supported by predoctoral scholarship (19814/FPI/15) of the Fundación Seneca. This work was supported by Russian Foundation for Basic Research Grant No. 18-29-14071.

Author information




All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation, data collection and analysis were performed by [JJMV] and [RC]. The first draft of the manuscript was written by [JJMV] under the supervision of [AMG] and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript AMG is an advisor for a project sponsored by Johnson's Baby. She has written two books, Nodding Off (Bloomsbury, 2018); The Sleepy Pebble (Flying Eye Books, 2019). She is a regular contributor to BBC Focus magazine and has contributed to other outlets (such as The Conversation, The Guardian and Balance Magazine). She occasionally receives sample products related to sleep (e.g. blue light blocking glasses) and has given a paid talk to a business.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Juan J. Madrid-Valero.

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Conflict of interest

Juan J. Madrid-Valero, Robert Chapman, Evangelina Bailo, Juan R. Ordoñana, Fatos Selita, Yulia Kovas, and Alice M. Gregory have declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

iGLAS has received approval from the ethics departments at both Goldsmiths, University of London and the Ethics Committee for Interdisciplinary Research of Tomsk State University, Russia.

Informed Consent

Participants read information about the study, including their rights as participants, and provided informed consent.

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Edited by Matt McGue.

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Madrid-Valero, J.J., Chapman, R., Bailo, E. et al. What Do People Know About the Heritability of Sleep?. Behav Genet 51, 144–153 (2021).

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  • Genetic knowledge
  • Insomnia
  • Heritability
  • Sleep