Genetic essentialism: on the deceptive determinism of DNA

Psychol Bull. 2011 Sep;137(5):800-18. doi: 10.1037/a0021860.


This article introduces the notion of genetic essentialist biases: cognitive biases associated with essentialist thinking that are elicited when people encounter arguments that genes are relevant for a behavior, condition, or social group. Learning about genetic attributions for various human conditions leads to a particular set of thoughts regarding those conditions: they are more likely to be perceived as (a) immutable and determined, (b) having a specific etiology, (c) homogeneous and discrete, and (d) natural, which can lead to the naturalistic fallacy. There are rare cases of "strong genetic explanation" when such responses to genetic attributions may be appropriate; however, people tend to overweigh genetic attributions compared with competing attributions even in cases of "weak genetic explanation," which are far more common. The authors reviewed research on people's understanding of race, gender, sexual orientation, criminality, mental illness, and obesity through a genetic essentialism lens, highlighting attitudinal, cognitive, and behavioral changes that stem from consideration of genetic attributions as bases of these categories. Scientific and media portrayals of genetic discoveries are discussed with respect to genetic essentialism, as is the role that genetic essentialism has played (and continues to play) in various public policies, legislation, scientific endeavors, and ideological movements in recent history. Last, moderating factors and interventions to reduce the magnitude of genetic essentialism, which identify promising directions to explore in order to reduce these biases, are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health
  • Cognition
  • Criminals / psychology
  • Ethnicity / genetics
  • Ethnicity / psychology
  • Eugenics
  • Female
  • Gender Identity
  • Genetic Determinism*
  • Genetics
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / genetics
  • Obesity / genetics
  • Phenotype
  • Prejudice
  • Racial Groups / genetics
  • Racial Groups / psychology
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology
  • Social Class
  • Stereotyping