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Behavioral Genetics, Population Genetics, and Genetic Essentialism

A Survey Experiment

  • SI: genetics and identity
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The paper presents an experimental study that examines the conditions required for news about behavioral genetics to activate genetic essentialism beliefs. Nine hundred sixty-five adults living in the USA were randomly assigned to read either a control news article or one of the three versions of a news story about behavioral genetics. The cautious version presents a general introduction to behavioral genetics and examples while also discrediting the genetic determinist myth and clarifying that this field is not interested in studying differences between populations. Another version was identical to the cautious version, except that it mentioned high heritability estimates as supporting evidence. Finally, a third version included claims supporting Nicolas Wade’s (2014) main thesis, which argued that societies develop different institutions partly because of their population’s behavioral genetic predispositions. Compared to participants in the control group, those exposed to the high heritability version and the Wade’s thesis version reported higher scores on a scale measuring belief in genetics determinism. The results revealed no overall effect for the cautious version, but an exploratory interaction model indicates that reactions to this version vary depending on educational attainment. Implications and limitations are discussed.

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  1. Full texts in Electronic Supplementary Material.

  2. Heritability estimates of similar sizes were found in Fowler et al. (2008), a study that received extensive media coverage.

  3. Our study used the MTurk platform to recruit participants. This tool is often used to conduct psychology experiments, and has been validated elsewhere (Behrend et al. 2011; Berinsky et al. 2012; Casler et al. 2013; Johnson and Borden 2012).

  4. Unfortunately, it is impossible to conduct a multiple imputation model for these missing observations because those participants abandoned the study at the beginning of the questionnaire, when they were exposed to the reading task. As such, they left the survey before answering any question item. In the Electronic Supplementary Material, Table A1 shows that there is no significant difference in drop-out rates across experimental groups.


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Thanks to André Blais, James H. Fowler and Peter Loewen for their support at different stages of this project. Thanks also to Aaron Panofsky, Elizabeth Suhay, Maya Sabatello and Paul S. Appelbaum for their insightful feedback.


This study received funding from the Department of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego.The author benefited from a PhD scholarship from the Fonds Québécois de Recherche – Société et Culture at the time this research was conducted.

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Correspondence to Alexandre Morin-Chassé.

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 The author declares no conflict of interest.

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The experiment presented in this study was evaluated by and received approval from the University of Montreal IRB.

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Previous versions of this manuscript were presented in 2015 at the Center for Research on the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Psychiatric, Neurologic, and Behavioral Genetics (Columbia University), and at the 2015 Annual Conference of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (Montreal).

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Morin-Chassé, A. Behavioral Genetics, Population Genetics, and Genetic Essentialism. Sci & Educ 29, 1595–1619 (2020).

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