Asymmetrical genetic attributions for prosocial versus antisocial behaviour


Genetic explanations of human behaviour are increasingly common. While genetic attributions for behaviour are often considered relevant for assessing blameworthiness, it has not yet been established whether judgements about blameworthiness can themselves impact genetic attributions. Across six studies, participants read about individuals engaging in prosocial or antisocial behaviour, and rated the extent to which they believed that genetics played a role in causing the behaviour. Antisocial behaviour was consistently rated as less genetically influenced than prosocial behaviour. This was true regardless of whether genetic explanations were explicitly provided or refuted. Mediation analyses suggested that this asymmetry may stem from people’s motivating desire to hold wrongdoers responsible for their actions. These findings suggest that those who seek to study or make use of genetic explanations’ influence on evaluations of, for example, antisocial behaviour should consider whether such explanations are accepted in the first place, given the possibility of motivated causal reasoning.

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Fig. 1: Mean genetic attribution ratings in studies one and two, collapsed across vignettes.
Fig. 2: Mean genetic attribution ratings in studies three and four, collapsed across vignettes.
Fig. 3: Bootstrap mediation analyses in study four.
Fig. 4: Image used in the genetic explanation in study three.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request.


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This work was funded by a grant from the Program on Genetics and Human Agency of the John D. Templeton Foundation. M.S.L. also received support from National Institutes of Health grant K99HG010084. Additional support for P.S.A. came from NIH grant RM1HG007257. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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M.S.L., K.T. and P.S.A. contributed to the conception and design of the experiments. M.S.L. collected and analysed the data. M.S.L. wrote an initial draft of the paper. All authors participated in editing the paper to create the final version.

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Correspondence to Matthew S. Lebowitz.

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Lebowitz, M.S., Tabb, K. & Appelbaum, P.S. Asymmetrical genetic attributions for prosocial versus antisocial behaviour. Nat Hum Behav 3, 940–949 (2019).

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