The genes are to blame game

The media love ‘your genes are to blame’ stories despite the fact that genetics is, in most cases, just one, often small, influence on a behaviour or trait.

Here’s a few lowlights:

Glass always half-empty? Your genes may be to blame
Lazy? Your Genes May Be to Blame
Have math anxiety? Your genes may be to blame
Couch potato? Your GENES could be to blame
Are You Forgetful? Your Genes Might Be To Blame
Are your genes to blame for not being rich?
Can’t do well in exams? Your genes are mostly to blame
Are Genetics to Blame for Poor Driving?
Genes to blame for boozy night

Spoiler: your genes are not to blame.

Firstly, it’s interesting that these stories are almost always framed around difficulties or negative characteristics. Rarely do you read stories along the lines of ‘Good looking? Compassionate? Healthy? Your genes may be to blame’.

In other words, they rely on people’s interest in discounting negative characteristics about themselves to attract readers / advertising targets at the expense of biasing the sorts of scientific results that get media attention.

So here would be a a more accurate if not slightly less catchy version of all these headlines: ‘Have this specific trait or behaviour? Your genes may typically contribute a small to moderate amount to the difference between people if you are similar to the population used in the study to estimate this effect – bearing in mind the caveats about the need to independently replicate the results to be confident in the reliability of the conclusions’

Yes, it doesn’t have quite the same impact as the ‘blame your genes’ headlines but you can still illustrate it with a stock photo of a blonde girl with an exaggerated expression of frustration on her face. Not all bad news, is it editors?

It’s worth saying that these sorts of stories are almost always about traits or behaviours where genetics contributes only a partial amount to the overall outcome but this is not a feature of genetics per se, it depends on what you’re looking at.

On one end of the spectrum are highly penetrant single gene disorders like Huntingdon’s disease where if you have the gene you’ll get the disorder. On the other end are much of human behaviours and traits where there are likely many genes that contribute a varying amount indirectly to the overall difference depending on the population being studied.

No-one has yet done a study on genetic contributions to differences in the likelihood of writing ‘your genes are to blame’ stories – probably due to a fear of opening a recursive media loop from which we may never emerge.

3 Comments

  1. Michael Fernandez
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful article! Great way to start my day with a nice mix of well placed humor and honest thought. Thank you!

  2. joao
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Hello. what about grey hair? How is grey hair not gene blamed, can you avoid it? Can you even stop it from happening?

  3. Posted March 29, 2014 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Vaughn – excellent. How about this one? This new U of MN article seems to be pushing genetic determinism more or less imo. Seriously – this stuff is just way too complicated when talking about behavior, etc. “Reach | Winter 2014
    Organizing Chaos: Creativity or Psychosis?”

    http://cla.umn.edu/news/reach/winter2014.php?entry=415041

    Rachael Grazioplene, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology, has an answer: “It seems that schizophrenia, like bipolar disorder, is a secondary consequence of genes that also produce positive human traits,” she says.


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