Do Americans think people act like they do because of environment or genes? The General Social Survey gave respondents four scenarios:
1) Carol is a substantially overweight White woman. She has lost weight in the past but always gains it back again.
2) David is an Asian man who drinks enough alcohol to become drunk several times a week. Often he can't remember what happened during these drinking episodes.
3) Felicia is a very kind Hispanic woman. She never has anything bad to say about anybody, and can be counted on to help others.
4) George is a Black man who's a good all-around athlete. He was on the high school varsity swim team and still works out five times a week.
Respondents were asked to estimate the influences of environment versus genes for each scenario. Answers ranged from 100% genes (scored as a 1) to 100% environment (scored as a 21). 50/50 would be scored as an 11.
I summed the scores for these four questions, and list the means for ethnic groups below (sample size = 1,842):
Mean environmentalism score
Asian Indians 56.7
American Indians 50.9
All Americans 49.3
Puerto Ricans 46.3
The mean score for all Americans indicates that the average person thinks the traits described are 55% due to environmental influences, and 45% due to genes. This is not far from the truth as indicated by genetic research. Americans seem to be ignoring their environment-is-all social science teachers. On the other hand, I'm sure by "environment" most people are thinking of experiences which siblings share -- families, schools, etc -- but research clearly shows that these factors are not important.
The highest scoring group, Asian Indians, thinks the traits are roughly 65% environment. The lowest group, people of Spanish descent, put the estimate at about 50/50. Hispanics, in general, tend to think genes are more important than other groups. This tendency is also true for blacks, but other non-whites -- Chinese, Filipinos, Asian Indians, and American Indians -- think the environment is more important. It's surprising that several poor minority groups think genes are so important. The gap between Asian Indians and the Spanish is eight-tenths of a standard deviation -- a large difference.
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