Gene-Environment Interaction

Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

The following lesson explores how genes and a person's environment influence behavior and outward expression of traits. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding of this timely topic.

The Role of Genes

Have you ever been in awe at how something works? Take for instance modern day smartphones. Today's smartphones are capable of performing functions that once were inconceivable for a device so small. However, when we use a smartphone, we tend to more or less just expect it to do what we ask it to do, rather than think about all the microchips and circuits the device is using to complete a task.

The inner workings of the human body operate in the same way. The processes that our bodies undergo are controlled by very small circuitries of their own. For example, expressing a simple thought requires the firing of millions of neurons. While microchips and circuits are the building blocks of electronics, genes are the 'biological building blocks' of humans.

Many psychologists agree that our inner circuitry, or genes, and our environments work together in such a way to produce the people we are today. However, the degree to which genes influence the outward expression of our physical and non-physical traits, is not clearly understood. This evolving process is called the gene-environment interaction, which we'll explore in this lesson.


Gene-Environment Interactions

While our genes are the primary source for how we outwardly express physical traits, like hair and eye color, the process becomes a little more complicated for how we outwardly express ourselves through our behavior. This is because genes don't necessarily force us to act one way or another by themselves. We also exist in an environment that is incredibly important in determining not only when and how our genes express themselves, but also in what combinations. And how your genes interact with an environment may be different than someone else's, as explained by the theories of range of reaction, genetic environmental correlation and epigenetics.

Range of Reaction

One way to describe the interaction between genes and an environment is called the range of reaction. Range of reaction proposes that our genes set the boundaries on our potential, while our environment interacts with the genes to determine where in that range of limits we will fall. For example, let's presume that genes are responsible for some portion of person's innate intelligence. People who are born with genes that predispose them to a high level of intelligence will more likely reach their potential if they are placed in an environment that is rich and stimulating.

Genetic Environmental Correlation

Genetic environmental correlation is another way that our genes influence our environment, and our environment influences our genes. As a symbiotic relationship, it explains how two factors influence one another. For example, one may expect the child of two famously talented tennis players to produce a child that was good at tennis as well. We might expect that a child whose parents are also good at tennis would expose their child to playing tennis at an early age.

Conversely, such environmental exposures might help a child realize their full genetic or hereditary potential. So as you can see, both genes and the environment work in conjunction with one another in this perspective.

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