Discuss ethical considerations in research into genetic influences on behaviour.


  • State what you are doing in the essay 
    • This response will attempt to offer a balanced review of ethical considerations in research into genetic influences on behaviour. 
  • Outline genetic research 
    • Research into human genetics aims to determine the influence of genes on behaviour and identify genes involved in hereditary diseases and disorders. 
  • Outline ethical considerations 
  • This kind of research may pose risks to participants because there are consequences for any individual, and their family, who finds out that they have a genetic predisposition to a disorder or behaviour that is harmful.
  • In psychology, ethics must be considered to ensure participants (humans and animals) are not harmed and that research conducted is ethically valid. 
  • Ethical considerations in research into genetic influences on behaviour include: 
    • revelations of carrying genes for genetic conditions
    • informed consent for genetic research
    • confidentiality of participants 
    • stigmatization of individuals on basis of knowledge of genetic conditions 

  • Signpost 
    • These main ethical considerations will be investigated with supporting studies in the body of the essay. 


1) Revelations of carrying genes for genetic conditions

  • Explain ethical consideration: 
    • E.g. evidence of unrevealed adoptions or discovery that the participant carries the gene for a particular genetic disorder.
    • Genetic research can reveal unexpected information that may harm participants 

Supporting Study 1: Nurnberger and Gershon (1982)

Introduce Study/Signpost: 

  • A study which shows revelations of carrying genes linked to depression is a study by Nurnberger and Gershon (1982). 


  • Reviewed the results of seven twin studies. 


  • Concordance rate – correlation – for major depressive disorder was consistently higher for monozygotic twins (MZTs) than dizygotic twins. 

Connection of study to question 

  • This study supports that there are genetic predispositions to depression. 
Ethical considerations: 

  • Knowledge of a genetic predisposition to depression may cause people undue stress as they may fear the onset of the disorder. 
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy: 
    • If one MZT has depression, their twin may express the self-fulfilling prophecy and demonstrate symptoms of depression as well. 
  • Stigmatization : 

    • Twins may be stigmatized – social discrimination of an individual with characteristics that distinguish them in society
    • People may be stigmatized because their twin has a disorder, even if they themselves do not 
  • Informed consent: 

    • The potential harm of participants due to knowledge of genetic predispositions is why genetic testing requires informed consent from the individual involved or from family members responsible for them.
    • Participants should be informed of the risk that they may experience revelations of a genetic predisposition. 
    • They must give informed consent to show that they have a clear understanding of true aims and nature of the study they are participating in, and the implications, including potential harm. 
2) Informed consent for genetic research
  • Explain ethical consideration:
    • It is important, especially for genetic research that the individual must be specifically informed about the true aims of the experiment and must require consent from the person involved and or from the parent/family guardians responsible for them before commencement of research.
    • Uninformed consent may lead to serious a problem if the study proves to be controversial, which, for example, is demonstrated by...

Supporting Study 2: Dr. Money (1974)

Introduce Study/Signpost:

  • ...a study lacking informed consent for genetic research by Dr. Money (1974). 

  • Money was contacted by parents of identical twin boys, one of whom (Bruce) had his penis burnt off in a circumcision accident. 
  • Money advised parents to castrate Bruce and turn him into a girl (Brenda). 

Ethical considerations: 

  • Genetically, Brenda was still a boy, but she was lied to and forced to live as a girl without informed consent. 
  • In genetic research, there is a risk that participants may learn something about themselves they are not prepared to deal with. 
    • Counselling should be offered as part of a full debriefing to genetic studies.
    • Neither Brenda nor her parents were debriefed about the case study that the twins were involved in. 
  • Money used this case as a study for his publication without knowledge of the parents 
    • violation of informed consent 
    • deception 
    • lack of confidentiality and privacy 

3) Confidentiality of participants

  • Participants should know how their privacy and confidentiality will be protected, and what will happen to any information obtained from the study. 
    • As there might be consequences for any individual who finds out that they have a genetic predisposition to a disorder or behaviour, which they might consider unpleasant or harmful.
    • Additional problems include future disadvantages regarding work and applying for other things – where the knowledge of a person’s genetic disorder or behaviour by other parties, such as insurance companies, who might prevent a person from receiving life insurance, or employers, who might refuse employment due to this regard. 
  • Confidentiality and privacy of participants can be protected by: 
    • Coding information (so that only a small number of researchers have access to the information) 
    • Fully anonymizing the sample (where researchers cannot link results to particular participants). 
      • Anonymizing the sample can limit the scientific value of the study by preventing follow up investigation. 
      • But it protects participants from insurance companies, employers, police, and others. 

4) Stigmatization of individuals on basis of knowledge of genetic conditions

  • If other people know about an individual’s genetic predisposition to a disease, the individual can be stigmatized. 
  • Stigmatization is another ethical consideration as it may lead to institutionalisation and differential treatment from others. 
    • For example, an insurance company may deny insurance to individuals due to a genetic predisposition of a disease.
    • Or employers might refuse employment. 

Supporting Study 4: Caspi et al. (2003)


  • 1037 adults aged 26 years 
  • Researchers assessed the participants? tendency to depression via self-reports 


  • Variation in the 5-HTT gene moderates the influence of stressful life events on major depression 
  • Researchers attempted to establish a correlation between the gene and the condition 

Ethical considerations: 

  • Stigmatization 
    • Participants may be stigmatized due to their genetic predisposition for major depression 
    • Other people may not wish to be around individuals with a genetic predisposition for a disorder or disease 
  • Participants may fear the onset of depression 
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy show tendency towards expressing the symptoms associated with depression


  • It is important to carry out, implement and consider ethical implications before commencement of research, especially into genetic research as there are many controversial consequences which could occur if not carried out properly. 
  • Ethics should always be considered in research to protect individuals and avoid harming participants. 
  • Research in psychology should always be critically evaluated for ethical issues.