Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Genetic research can promote peace or conflict, depending on how it's used

It's becoming easier than ever to research the genetic roots of different ethnic groups and these findings can be framed differently to either emphasise that groups are similar or different. For example, a BBC headline from 2000 stated "Jews and Arabs are 'genetic brothers'" while a 2013 Medical Daily headline claimed "Genes of most Ashkenazi Jews trace back to indigenous Europe, not Middle East". As political leaders have started citing this kind of evidence to promote their particular agenda, be that to unite or divide peoples, a new study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin has investigated whether genetic information could be a tool for promoting peace or a weapon to stir conflict.

Sasha Kimel and her colleagues began by asking 123 Jewish and 57 Arab participants in the US to read either the BBC "genetic siblings" article from 2000 or an adapted "genetic strangers" version which reversed the findings to suggest that Arabs and Jews are genetically very dissimilar. The participants had no idea that they'd been recruited based on their ethnicity, and to further disguise the aims of the research they were told that they would be tested on their memory of the article after completing a series of distracting psychological tests. In reality, some of these tests were used to reveal any effects of the articles on the participants' attitudes and this included a measure of their views of a typical Arab- or Jewish-American and a test of their implicit (subconscious) attitudes towards Arabs and Jews.

As the researchers expected, Jews and Arabs rated each other more positively after reading about their genetic similarities compared with reading about their differences, although there were no effects on implicit attitudes.

A second study was similar but involved Jewish participants only, and this time the researchers showed that reading about genetic similarities between Jews and Arabs led the participants to display less aggression towards an Arab opponent called Mohammed in a reaction time contest. That is, on winning trials, the Jewish participants had the chance to blast their Arab opponent with white noise, and those participants who'd read about genetic similarities chose weaker noise blasts than those who'd read about genetic differences.

A third study with more Jewish participants was also similar but added a third baseline neutral condition in which participants read an article that had nothing to do with genetics or ethnic groups. This time the main outcome measure was support for Israeli peacekeeping. These results suggested that the "genetics strangers" article wasn't having much influence on participants compared with the neutral condition, but that the "genetic siblings" article was boosting support for peacekeeping via its effect of improving attitudes towards Arabs.

Based on these initial results the researchers said that they "encourage interventions that create greater awareness of the considerable amount of genetic overlap that exists between all of the world's ethnic and racial groups".

But would these benefits translate to Israel, a nation that lives with ongoing interethnic conflict? The fourth and arguably most important study tested the effects of the same three news articles ("genetic siblings", "genetic strangers" and a neutral story) translated into Hebrew and adapted so they appeared to have been published in the Israeli newspaper Ynet. The researchers recruited nearly 200 Jewish Israeli's on commuter trains in North and South Israel and had them read one of these three stories before completing tests of their attitudes towards Palestinians and their support for different policies. The worrying finding this time was that the "genetic siblings" article appeared to have no benefit, but that the "genetic strangers" article reduced support for peaceful policies via increasing antipathy towards Palestinians.

Based on their last study, the researchers warned that "...learning about how you are genetically different from an enemy group may have a particularly menacing effect in the contexts of war". They added: "Based on our findings, we suggest that crisis-monitoring organisations (e.g. International Crisis Group, Genocide Watch) go on heightened alert when conflict-rhetoric begins emphasising genetic differences."


Kimel, S., Huesmann, R., Kunst, J., & Halperin, E. (2016). Living in a Genetic World: How Learning About Interethnic Genetic Similarities and Differences Affects Peace and Conflict Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42 (5), 688-700 DOI: 10.1177/0146167216642196

--further reading--
Could lessons in genetic variation help reduce racial prejudice?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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