Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Genetics as an Omitted Variable in Psychology and Social Science

Here’s the abstract of an article by Frank Schmidt in the Archives of Scientific Psychology:

Governments often base social intervention programs on studies done by psychologists and other social scientists.Often these studies fail to mention other research suggesting that such interventions may have a limited chance of actually working. The omitted research that is not mentioned often shows that the behaviors and performances targeted for improvement by the environmental intervention programs are mostly caused by genetic differences between people and for that reason may be more difficult to change than implied in these studies. This is particularly true when the goal is to greatly reduce or eliminate differences between people in such domains as school achievement, impulsive behaviors, or intelligence. This problem of omitted research creates two problems. It tends to call into question the credibility of all social science research, even the studies that do not omit relevant research.And from an applied point of view, it leads to the expenditure of taxpayer dollars on programs that are unlikely to produce the desired outcomes.

Here are a few paragraphs from early in the article:

The first area of problem research focuses on the ostensible effects of life experiences on life outcomes. This broad area includes many research areas and topics in different psychological specialties. The aspect of much of this research that is problematic is the common failure to acknowledge the relevant findings in the field of behavior genetics.

These findings show that virtually all tendencies, traits, behaviors, and life outcomes have a substantial genetic basis (cf.Bouchard, 1997a, 1997b, 2004; Colarelli & Arvey, 2015; Lee & McGue, 2016; McGue & Bouchard, 1998; Plomin, DeFries, Knopik,& Neiderhiser, 2013; Plomin, DeFries, Knopik, & Neiderhaise, 2016; Plomin, Owen, & McGuffin, 1994; Turkheimer, 2000). Even day-to-day variability in positive and negative affect has been shown to be substantially heritable (Zheng, Plomin, & von Stumm, 2016).Research has further shown that most supposedly purely environmental variables (such as the number of books and magazines in the home) that are often concluded to be environmental causes of later life outcomes are themselves genetically influenced (e.g., see Plomin & Bergman, 1991; Plomin et al., 2016). That is, they are substantially influenced by the genetic makeup of the parents in the home, whose genes are passed on to their offspring.

Research also indicates that people seek out and create their own environments based on their genetically influenced proclivities and interests (Scarr, 1996; Scarr,1989; Scarr & McCartney, 1983).The forgoing is a very brief overview but is believed to be sufficient to establish the main point. These behavior genetics findings do not mean that experiences of people do not have any effect on their later life outcomes. But they do mean that failure to even mention potential or likely genetic influences on these outcomes is a serious problem, one that reduces the credibility of the research. The following are some examples of studies that fail to acknowledge these well-established research findings.

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National Personalities & Genetic Traits at the BBC… Plus Something More on the BBC

So the notoriously alt-right fringe fake news organization, the BBC, had an article entitled Different Nationalities Really Have Different Personalities. It begins:

When psychologists have given the same personality test to hundreds or thousands of people from different nations, they have indeed found that the average scores tend to come out differently across cultures. In other words, the average personality in one country often really is different from the average personality in another.

From my perspective, as someone who spent around 30% of his life abroad, if the paragraph above wasn’t true, there’d be little point in traveling. Why the heck go through the hassle and expense of getting yourself to Malaysia, Mexico or Morocco if you’re just going to meet the same people you’ll find on your block?

Now, the Beeb does assure us that many of the perceptions that people do hold about the personalities of different countries are wrong. But that isn’t as comforting as you might think. To make that statement, of course, requires knowing what the personalities of the countries are, which is covered here:

Several large international studies have now documented cross-cultural differences in average personality. One of the most extensive was published in 2005 by Robert McCrae and 79 collaborators around the world, who profiled more than 12,000 college students from 51 cultures. Based on averaging these personality profiles, the researchers were able to present an “aggregate” trait score for each of the cultures.

The highest scoring cultural groups for Extraversion on average were Brazilians, French Swiss and the Maltese, while the lowest scoring were Nigerians, Moroccans and Indonesians. The highest scoring for Openness to Experience were German-speaking Swiss, Danes and Germans, while the lowest scoring on average were Hong Kong Chinese, Northern Irish and Kuwaitis. The study also uncovered variation between countries in the three other main personality traits of Neuroticism, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness.

Of course, it’s important to remember that these are averages and there is a lot of overlap between countries; there are undoubtedly a lot of people in Indonesia who are more extraverted than some from Brazil.

Of course, that result is so 2005. More recent polling seems to indicate that post-experience Danes are less open to more experience in the future, at least when that experience involves immigration from some regions of the world.

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