Wrestling with Social and Behavioral Genomics: Executive Summary

Social and behavioral scientists are increasingly fre­quently collaborating with geneticists or adapting the methods of genetics research to investigate how genomic differences are associated with differences in a wide variety of behavioral and social phenotypes. The huge and varied range of phenotypes investigated in social and behavioral genomics (SBG) research, broadly construed, includes smoking and eating behavior, schizophrenia, at­tention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a sense of well-being, introversion, risk-taking preferences, income, intelligence, and educational attainment. Researchers study these phenotypes because they believe that doing so can, among other benefits, contribute to more rigorous social (and health) science, which can in turn contribute to more just social policies.

Because, as we detail in part 1, there is such a long his­tory of attempts to use claims about genetic differences in such phenotypes to advance unjust social policies—and because of the potential of such claims to undercut efforts at creating more just social policies—SBG research can be deeply controversial. In this report, we seek to convey what our working group, composed both of scientists who conduct SBG research and of scholars who think critically about it (see boxes 1 and 2 below), learned from three years of wrestling with the historical, social, and scientific facts rel­evant to the ethics of SBG research. More specifically, we seek to articulate where a majority of our working group did—and did not—achieve consensus about the issues with which we wrestled.

To understand the risks and potential benefits of SBG research in more depth, our group first had to wrestle with the scientific question, what can genetics tell us about so­cial outcomes as complex as, for example, educational attainment? Addressing that question required us to put SBG research in the context of genetics research more generally. It is easy to forget today how significant it was in the 1960s and ’70s for psychologists and behavioral geneti­cists to demonstrate that genetic differences were making a difference with respect to complex phenotypes like autism and schizophrenia. For the rest of the twentieth century and into the second decade of the twenty-first, there were concerted efforts to identify which genetic variants were making a difference and how they were doing that. Many of those efforts at explaining how genetic differences were making a phenotypic difference were frustrating to those who undertook them. Beginning in the late 2000s, how­ever, a new tool that is the focus of much of our discus­sion—polygenic indexes (PGIs)—made it possible at least to begin making predictions about future outcomes.

In parts 2 and 3, we suggest that PGIs might not be as useful as some enthusiasts suggest; but neither are they use­less, as some critics suggest. Consider one of the most pre­dictive PGIs for a social science phenotype that currently exists, which is based on the fourth in a series of studies of educational attainment, known as “EA4.” The predictive power of the EA4 PGI that is attributable to the causal ef­fects of genetic variants is only about 5 percent of the total variance in observed differences among individuals. And so, from one perspective, the EA4 PGI explains relatively little about the observed differences among individuals that are attributable to causal genetic effects. But from an­other, equally important perspective, the predictive power of PGIs can be comparable to environmental variables like family income that researchers commonly use. The pre­dictive power of the EA4 PGI attributable to associations between genetic variants and educational attainment is ap­proximately 15 percent. This predictive power can be use­ful, for instance, as a relatively strong control variable for social and health scientists.

To discuss the risks and benefits of SBG research, we also had to wrestle with the meaning of a key concept that geneticists use, whether they are studying heart disease, schizophrenia, or educational attainment: the concept of a “population.” More specifically, genetics research usu­ally entails identifying people who are genetically similar to some reference population, such as one described in the 1000 Genomes Project. Researchers deploy this concept to increase the likelihood that, when they detect an asso­ciation between a genetic variant and the phenotype they are investigating, the variant is in fact associated with that phenotype, as opposed to being an artifact of factors like human migration.

As is obvious from the fact that geneticists themselves have conceived of and labeled the populations they study in very different ways over the last seventy years, those group­ings are not written in nature. Indeed, because there is con­tinuous variation within and between groups, there are no clear breaks between populations. Today, the “populations” that result from this practice of including or excluding peo­ple from a given analysis are often, very imperfectly, called “genetic ancestries”—whether they are defined at the con­tinental level (for example, with “European ancestries,” or “EUR”) or more granularly (for example, as “the Finnish,” or “FIN”).

Risks and Benefits of SBG Research

Having clarified to some extent what genetic informa­tion can—and cannot—teach people about complex phenotypes and having clarified what geneticists mean by “genetic ancestry,” we intend for the reader of the report to be better prepared to discuss the risks and potential ben­efits of SBG research. In part 4, we catalogue risks of SBG research (though not only SBG research) at the individual, group, and social levels. These risks include stigmatization, discrimination in a range of domains, the reification of race and ethnicity as biological concepts, scientifically or ethi­cally inappropriate applications of SBG research, genetic fatalism (the generally inaccurate belief that genetic pre­dispositions make environmental interventions futile), and genetic distractionism (the risk that attention and resources devoted to genes and genomic research will displace atten­tion and resources devoted to more effective environmental interventions).

By contrast, in part 5, we recognize several potential benefits of SBG research, beyond the intrinsic value of bet­ter understanding the world and humans’ place in it. At a broad level, we note that because genetic (and environ­mental) factors are important for variation in virtually ev­ery human phenotype, failing to consider the role of genes in some way means that the scientific record on important phenomena is likely to be incomplete at best and inaccu­rate at worst. In particular, potential benefits include bet­ter understanding environmental causes and the limits of genomic influence, improving social science and clinical trials by using PGIs as control variables, advancing health research, and, through these more direct benefits, indirect­ly improving policies.

Distinguishing Justifiable and Unjustifiable SBG Research

Our assessment of the risks and potential benefits of SBG research leads us to conclude that SBG research on a wide range of phenotypes can be worth conducting, funding, and publishing. However, we also articulate two levels of concern in part 6 (for an overview of the working group’s findings, see figure 4 below and in “Responsible Behavior in the Context of Sociobehavioral Genomics [SBG] Research,” on p. S30 of the report). First, we consider SBG research involving “sen­sitive phenotypes” to be SBG research of heightened concern. At a minimum, heightened obligations of responsible con­duct and communication apply to research of heightened concern.

Although nearly any social or behavioral phenotype has some potential to be sensitive, we have more concern about studying (and creating PGIs for) some phenotypes than others. These include phenotypes that can be viewed in a society (rightly or wrongly) as being very consequential to social status (for example, obesity, substance-use disorders, intelligence-test scores, educational attainment, income, and criminalized behaviors), phenotypes that are or have historically been part of harmful stereotypes about minori­tized groups and threaten to reify the biologization of social identities (such as financial prowess, academic diligence, hysteria, hypersexuality, musical beat synchronization, and athleticism), and phenotypes that are central to a minori­tized group’s identity (such as sexual orientation, sexual be­havior, and gender identity). Recognizing that sensitivity is contingent on time and place and that our working group is limited by its United States-based perspective, we rec­ommend that those assessing SBG research phenotypes do their best to attend to current and likely near-term future factors affecting the sensitivity of phenotypes.

Second, we consider SBG research of the greatest con­cern to be research (1) on sensitive phenotypes that (2) compares groups defined by (a) race, (b) ethnicity, or (c) genetic ancestry, where genetic ancestry could easily be misunderstood as race or ethnicity (“group-comparison research,” for short). All members of the working group have serious doubts about the scientific validity of group-comparison research today regarding SBG phenotypes. Such comparisons would be confounded by different allele frequencies and linkage disequilibrium patterns and by the different environments in which groups live. By “environ­ments,” we mean not only the differences of living in, say, China and Finland, but also the different sociopolitical forces even within a geographic area that shape behavioral and social phenotypes. And we all agree that—considering the social risks of group-comparison research—scientific validity should be an ethical precondition of conducting, funding, or publishing it.

However, we disagree both about the likelihood that group-comparison research will ever be sufficiently valid to yield meaningful results and, if it were, about whether scientific validity alone would be enough to justify such research ethically. We note that, even as they disagree on this point, working-group members nevertheless can and do marshal the same commitments to improving human welfare and justice to support their positions.

For some members of our working group, scientific validity is “compelling justification” enough. Those who adopt this perspective have different reasons: Some view the pursuit of scientific knowledge as an absolute value. Others who take the position that scientific validity is jus­tification enough do so on pragmatic grounds. In other words, although these members are open, in theory, to the idea that some social science research is too dangerous to justify, they believe that, in practice, it would be difficult or impossible fairly and reasonably to draw such lines. They further suspect that attempts to set limits on research are likely to cause more overall harm than good and that jus­tice will sometimes be advanced by group-comparison re­search—for instance, by better understanding how groups differ genetically so that environmental interventions can be tailored to these differences.

A second group of working-group members, while ac­knowledging the importance of scientific knowledge and freedom, emphasizes that these are not absolute values but must be balanced with others, including welfare and justice. These members think that, in almost all cases, the social risks of the research would outweigh the potential benefits and that justice would best be served by abstain­ing from group-comparison research concerning sensitive SBG phenotypes. However, they leave open the possibility that, in rare cases, the ethical analysis could turn out differ­ently. Assuming that a study could meet the precondition of yielding scientifically valid conclusions, these members would require that the study have a sufficiently favorable risk-benefit profile. Given the highly contextual nature of research risks and potential benefits, a case-by-case as­sessment would be required, especially in light of the fact that research risk is generally assessed not in isolation but, rather, in comparison to existing risks (of stigma and dis­crimination, for example), which are not static.

In summary, and as depicted in figure 4 (below), we all agree that group-comparison research requires a compelling jus­tification of the study’s scientific validity. While some of us believe that researchers should be free to pursue any sci­entifically valid research, others of us would additionally require a compelling justification of the study’s risk-benefit profile. We all recommend that, absent the relevant com­pelling justification(s)—a criterion that some of us think will never be met—researchers not conduct, funders not fund, and journals not publish research on sensitive phe­notypes that compares groups defined by race, ethnicity, or genetic ancestry, where genetic ancestry could easily be misunderstood as race or ethnicity.

Responsible Conduct and Communication of SBG Research

Although all research, especially with human partici­pants, should be responsibly conducted and com­municated, in part 7, we call for special attention to these matters in SBG research of heightened concern (see figure 4). Needless to say, stakeholders involved with any SBG research of greatest concern—including funders, journal editors and reviewers, and the media—should also adopt these practices, as applicable. But because researchers are central agents in all aspects of research, we direct our rec­ommendations to them in the first instance.

With respect to responsible research conduct, we rec­ommend that researchers engage people about whom the study pertains to (including but not limited to those who provide study data); be clear in their own minds about why they are using membership in a group or “population” as an inclusion or exclusion criterion (or otherwise) in their stud­ies and make sampling choices that reflect that intention; justify how they define and measure the phenotypes under study; conduct only adequately powered studies; replicate their findings in hold-out samples; whenever possible, con­duct adequately powered within-family analyses; and work with the rest of the research community to ensure that any benefits of SBG research and PGIs extend to all.

With respect to responsible communication of SBG re­search in scientific papers, we recommend that research­ers, in either the main text or, as necessary, a supplement, explicitly describe and justify their methods for defining any groups or “populations,” including whether (and if so, how) the researchers controlled for confounding variables, and explicitly distinguish among race, ethnicity, genetic an­cestry, and other group or population terms; work toward language for describing human populations that reflects the continuum of genetic diversity and makes these popu­lations less easily conflated with race or ethnicity; report effect sizes in the abstract and avoid graphs that exaggerate them; and embed caveats and context in graphs and tables to make it more difficult for them to be misappropriated; and develop a salient “key-points” box that conveys how the results should—and should not—be interpreted and used.

Finally, scientific results are often communicated in oth­er ways and to other audiences, including via press releases, frequently-asked-questions (FAQs) documents, websites, videos, and social media. In whatever form dissemination takes, research results should not be hyped, and warnings should be included against misinterpretation and misuse by other scientists and nonscientists, including the media, policy-makers, practitioners, and members of the public.

As difficult as the problems of science literacy and clear communication about complex science are, we end part 7—and our report—by acknowledging a further problem that is at least as difficult: different people can and do bring different values to the same set of facts. Therefore, once researchers have fulfilled their duty of responsibly conduct­ing and communicating SBG research, there remain the potential harms that do not result from a misrepresenta­tion, misinterpretation, or misunderstanding of facts but from invidious values. Much as we cannot offer a simple algorithm for weigh­ing the potential harms and benefits of any given SBG protocol, we cannot offer a simple solution to the hard problem regarding invidious values. But recognizing why and how SBG research raises questions that demand to be wrestled with is, we think, in itself an important step in the right direction. Meanwhile, we hope that our descrip­tion of the historic, scientific, and ethical terrain and our recommendations for the responsible conduct and com­munication of SBG research will be useful to others as they wrestle with social and behavioral genomics research.

This Executive Summary is from:

Michelle N. Meyer, Paul S. Appelbaum, Daniel J. Benjamin, Shawneequa L. Callier, Nathaniel Comfort, Dalton Conley, Jeremy Freese, Nanibaa’ A. Garrison, Evelynn M. Hammonds, K. Paige Harden, Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, Alicia R. Martin, Daphne Oluwaseun Martschenko, Benjamin M. Neale, Rohan H. C. Palmer, James Tabery, Eric Turkheimer, Patrick Turley, and Erik Parens, “Wrestling with Social and Behavioral Genomics: Risks, Potential Benefits, and Ethical Responsibility,” in The Ethical Implications of Social and Behavioral Genomics, ed. Erik Parens and Michelle N. Meyer, special report, Hastings Center Report 53, no. 2 (2023): S2-S49. DOI 10.1002/hast.1477         

Abstract: In this consensus report by a diverse group of academics who conduct and/or are concerned about social and behavioral genomics (SBG) research, the authors recount the often ugly history of scientific attempts to understand the genetic contributions to human behaviors and social outcomes. They then describe what the current science—including genomewide association studies and polygenic indexes—can and cannot tell us, as well as its risks and potential benefits. They conclude with a discussion of responsible behavior in the context of SBG research. SBG research that compares individuals within a group according to a “sensitive” phenotype requires extra attention to responsible conduct and to responsible communication about the research and its findings. SBG research (1) on sensitive phenotypes that (2) compares two or more groups defined by (a) race, (b) ethnicity, or (c) genetic ancestry (where genetic ancestry could easily be misunderstood as race or ethnicity) requires a compelling justification to be conducted, funded, or published. All authors agree that this justification at least requires a convincing argument that a study’s design could yield scientifically valid results; some authors would additionally require the study to have a socially favorable risk-benefit profile.


1. See R. Plomin et al., eds., Behavioral Genetics in the Postgenomic Era (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2002).

2. Roughly the same field has been described elsewhere as “genoeconomics” (D. J. Benjamin et al., “The Promises and Pitfalls of Genoeconomics,” Annual Review of Economics 4, no. 1 [September 1, 2012]: 627-62), “social genomics” (D. Conley and J. Fletcher, The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History, and the Future [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017]), “sociogenomics” (C. Bliss, Social by Nature: The Promise and Peril of Sociogenomics [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018]), and “social science genomics” (A. Angers et al., Genome-Wide Association Studies, Polygenic Scores, and Social Science Genetics: Overview and Policy Implications [Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2019]). In our multidisciplinary project, we preferred to use a term that is not limited to a single discipline (such as “genoeconomics”) and that does not imply a limitation to either social or behavioral phenotypes.

3. The earliest paper constructing a PGI was S. M. Purcell et al., “Common Polygenic Variation Contributes to Risk of Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder,” Nature 460 (2009): 748-52. But the idea (as applied to humans) was described earlier in P. D. Pharoah et al., “Polygenic Susceptibility to Breast Cancer and Implications for Prevention,” Nature Genetics 31, no. 1 (2002): 33-36, and in N. R. Wray, M. E. Goddard, and P. M. Visscher, “Prediction of Individual Genetic Risk to Disease from Genome-Wide Association Studies,” Genome Research 17 (2007): 1520-28.

4. We are using “PGI,” following an observation from legal scholar Martha Minow that “score” may connote a judgment that is not necessarily intended in social and behavioral phenotypes. See the box in J. Becker et al., “Resource Profile and User Guide of the Polygenic Index Repository,” Nature Human Behavior 5, no. 12 (2021): 1744-58.