Motivation to study is genetic

Photo: Mitgirl |

Photo: Mitgirl |

In recent years several scientific studies have found that genes play a large role in determining personality. So it may not come as a surprise to some that motivation to study is also genetic, as a new study suggests.

This doesn’t mean parents should give up trying to get their children to study, but each child may need a different type of approach.

The study looked at 13,000 fraternal and identical twins of ages 9 to 16 from six countries, namely the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Germany, Russia and the United States. Students were asked how much they enjoyed different academic activities and to rate their ability in different school subjects. The answers for fraternal twins was then compared to those from identical twins. Fraternal twins have about half their inherited genes in common while identical twins share all of their inherited genes.

Personality studies based on twins look at the similarities in responses between siblings, the idea being that twins, identical or fraternal, who are raised together in the same way should display similar tendencies, and any differences are then due to genes. This boils down the the nature versus nurture debate and many studies have found that on average nature plays a much bigger role.

In this study, the responses of identical twins were more similar than those of fraternal twins, thereby showing that academic motivation is more likely dependent on genes and individual differences than other factors such as environment and upbringing. The researchers found that 40% to 50% of the differences in motivation to learn could be explained by the genes they had. These results were prominent across countries and ages for all the children. The study was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences and reported by ScienceDaily.

Study co-author Stephen Petrill, professor of psychology at The Ohio State University, said that prior to the study, he presumed that the siblings’ shared environment (family, teachers, etc) would play a bigger role than their genetics.

Instead, shared environment had a minor impact. He said, “We had pretty consistent findings across these different countries with their different educational systems and different cultures. It was surprising. We found that there are personality differences that people inherit that have a major impact on motivation. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to encourage and inspire students, but we have to deal with the reality of why they’re different.”

While genetics could explain 40-50% of motivation to learn, about the same percentage could be explained by what is called the non-shared environment. This refers to the individual experiences and perceptions of each person, which could result from environmental factors such as different teachers or perceived differences in parenting. This aspect of personality is not yet well understood, and parents and home environment could still shape a child’s perception of the world.

Taking into account both genetic and non-shared environment influences on motivation, only a small percentage (about 3%) could be linked to the children’s shared environment, such as their similar family experiences. Petrill said, “Most personality variables have a genetic component, but to have nearly no shared environment component is unexpected. But it was consistent across all six countries.”

These conclusions do not mean that there is a specific gene which children who love learning possess. Rather, it is a complex combinations of certain genes that affect a child’s enthusiasm to learn, along with the individual experiences of each child. That doesn’t mean giving up on getting a child to learn. “We should absolutely encourage students and motivate them in the classroom,” study author Petrill said. However, each child will be different and will need different types of motivation.

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