Personal morality maybe genetic

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Personal morality maybe genetic

Arguably this is the most important study of the week, and one which could lead to changes in the way we parent, select people for jobs or even for positions of power. The study was published in the journal Nature Genetics.

A new baby is often welcomed with speculation about whether they got their eyes and nose from mom or dad, but researchers say it may be possible for children to inherit their parents’ moral characteristics, as well. The researchers found that while parents can help encourage their children to develop into responsible, conscientious adults, there is an underlying genetic factor that also influences these traits.

The researchers hope that their study can help start a conversation about how and why these characteristics—referred to as “virtuous character”—develop.

What the researchers say: “A lot of studies have shown a link between parenting and these virtuous traits, but they haven’t looked at the genetic component,” said the lead author. “I thought that was a missed opportunity because parents also share their genes with their children, and what we think is parents influencing and teaching their children these characteristics may actually be due, at least in part, to genetics.”

The researchers used data from 720 pairs of siblings—including identical and fraternal twins, full siblings in divorced and non-divorced families, half siblings, and unrelated siblings—and their parents.

The researchers said including pairs of siblings with a wide variety of relatedness was helpful to discovering both genetic and environmental factors that influence traits. For example, identical twins have identical DNA, while step-siblings do not share any genes but do share a home, or environment.

“Including multiple degrees of relatedness can give you more power to disentangle the genetic influences from the shared environment,” said the lead researcher.

The researchers gathered participants’ data first during adolescence and then again in young adulthood. They measured parental positivity—such as responsiveness and giving praise—as well as parental negativity, like yelling and conflict. They also measured the children’s responsibility during adolescence and conscientiousness during young adulthood.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that while positive parenting was associated with their children being more responsible and conscientious, those associations were stronger in siblings that were more closely related.

The team said that because of the similarity of the siblings, the results suggest that the traits are partially genetic.

“Essentially, we found that both genetics and parenting influence these characteristics,” they said. “The way children act or behave is due, in part, to genetic similarity and how parents respond to those child behaviors. Then, those behaviors have an influence on the children’s social responsibility and conscientiousness.”

The lead researcher added that while she and the other researchers found a genetic element to the development of virtuous characteristics, that does not mean the traits were completely determined by DNA. “Your genes are not totally deterministic of who you are. Genes simply give you a potential. People still make their own choices and have agency in shaping who they become.”

So, what? On a surface level the findings help better explain how parents shape their children’s character. On a deeper level it begs the question as to which genes or cluster of genes lead to particular traits—virtuous or not. When we discover those genes will we then intervene to promote those traits throughout society?

As a concerned scientist as well as a psychologist this is not a path that I think we should be venturing on.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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