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Genetic Pygmalion Effect? Study Suggests Negative Impacts of Genetic Tests for Educational Purposes

Genetic tests claiming to predict people’s intellectual aptitudes or how much education they are likely to get are readily available via direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies. Some researchers are even proposing the use of such tests in educational settings for “precision education,” in which individualized student education plans would be tailored to scores generated from the genetic findings. But a new study – the first to look at the potential psychosocial impacts of these genetic scores for educational attainment – finds that they could have negative effects on students’ self-esteem and sense of their educational potential.

Lucas J. Matthews, a postdoctoral researcher at The Hastings Center and Columbia University’s Center for Research on Ethical, Legal & Social Implications of Psychiatric, Neurologic & Behavioral Genetics, is the lead author of the study, which was published in Social Psychology of Education. An abstract is available here.

Genetic tests for educational purposes are designed to detect hundreds of small genetic variants in a single sample of saliva. These tests produce  “polygenic scores,” which permit modest genetic prediction of selected traits and outcomes.

In online experiments with adults ages 18 to 25 in the United States, Matthews and colleagues asked participants to imagine hypothetical situations in which they or a classmate had recently received polygenic scores for educational attainment, which is the number of years of schooling a person completes in their lifetime. Compared with a control group, participants who were told they had received a low score had lower measures of self-esteem, self-perceived competence, academic efficacy, and educational potential. Along similar lines, participants who were asked to evaluate a hypothetical classmate with a low-percentile score attributed significantly lower academic efficacy and educational potential to the classmate.

The study highlights some of the potentially negative social or psychological effects that polygenic tests for education could engender. Matthews notes that “although the predictive accuracy of these tests is extremely limited, learning one’s own or another’s polygenic score could very well negatively impact student attitudes and beliefs about school potential.” Poor results could give rise to self-fulfilling prophecies: students who receive low polygenic test results may lower their expectations of what they believe to be their limited genetic potential for education. Similarly, polygenic scores could give rise to social stigma: individuals with low scores could be perceived as inferior or incompetent by their peers.

“The study appears to demonstrate something similar to a well-known effect in psychology—the Pygmalion effect, which occurs when students respond to low expectations from their teachers with poor classroom performance,” says Matthews. “Our study points to something like a genetic version of the Pygmalion effect in which student performance could be negatively impacted by the lowered expectations of a poor genetic test result.”

Other authors are Matthew S. Lebowitz, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry  at Columbia University; Ruth Ottman, a professor in Columbia University’s departments of Epidemiology and Neurology; and Paul S. Appelbaum, director of Columbia University’s  Center for Research on Ethical, Legal & Social Implications of Psychiatric, Neurologic & Behavioral Genetics and a Hastings Center fellow.

Matthews is conducting a series of larger studies designed to identify factors that could reduce the harmful impacts of polygenic scores for educational attainment.

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