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2.5: Behavioral Genetics

  • Page ID
    184019
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    Behavioral Genetics is the scientific study of the interplay between the genetic and environmental contributions to behavior. Often referred to as the nature/nurture debate, Gottlieb (1998, 2000, 2002) suggests an analytic framework for this debate that recognizes the interplay between the environment, behavior, and genetic expression. This bidirectional interplay suggests that the environment can affect the expression of genes just as genetic predispositions can impact a person's potentials. Additionally, environmental circumstances can trigger symptoms of a genetic disorder. For example, a person who has sickle cell anemia, a recessive gene linked disorder, can experience a sickle cell crisis under conditions of oxygen deprivation. Someone predisposed genetically for type-two diabetes can trigger the disease through poor diet and little exercise.

    Research has shown how the environment and genotype interact in several ways. Genotype-Environment Correlations refer to the processes by which genetic factors contribute to variations in the environment (Plomin et al., 2013). There are three types of genotype-environment correlations:

    • Passive genotype-environment correlation occurs when children passively inherit the genes and the environments their family provides. Certain behavioral characteristics, such as being athletically inclined, may run in families. The children have inherited both the genes that would enable success at these activities, and given the environmental encouragement to engage in these actions. Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) highlights this correlation by demonstrating how a family passes on water skiing skills through both genetics and environmental opportunities.
      A group of family members from multiple generations is waterskiing together.
      Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\). A family passes on skills in waterskiing to younger generations. Image source.
    • Evocative genotype-environment correlation refers to how the social environment reacts to individuals based on their inherited characteristics. For example, whether one has a more outgoing or shy temperament will affect how he or she is treated by others.
    • Active genotype-environment correlation occurs when individuals seek out environments that support their genetic tendencies. This is also referred to as niche picking. For example, children who are musically inclined seek out music instruction and opportunities that facilitate their natural musical ability.

    Conversely, Genotype-Environment Interactions involve genetic susceptibility to the environment. Adoption studies provide evidence for genotype-environment interactions. For example, the Early Growth and Development Study (Leve et al., 2010) followed 360 adopted children and their adopted and biological parents in a longitudinal study. Results have shown that children whose biological parents exhibited psychopathology, exhibited significantly fewer behavior problems when their adoptive parents used more structured parenting than unstructured. Additionally, elevated psychopathology in adoptive parents increased the risk for the children's development of behavior problems, but only when the biological parents' psychopathology was high. Consequently, the results show how environmental effects on behavior differ based on the genotype, especially stressful environments on genetically at-risk children.

    Lastly, Epigenetics studies modifications in DNA that affect gene expression and are passed on when the cells divide. Environmental factors, such as nutrition, stress, and teratogens, are thought to change gene expression by switching genes on and off. These gene changes can then be inherited by daughter cells. This would explain why monozygotic or identical twins may increasingly differ in gene expression with age. For example, Fraga et al. (2005) found that when examining differences in DNA, a group of monozygotic twins were indistinguishable during the early years. However, when the twins were older there were significant discrepancies in their gene expression, most likely due to different experiences. These differences included susceptibilities to disease and a range of personal characteristics.


    This page titled 2.5: Behavioral Genetics is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.