Free Will, Determinism, and Intuitive Judgments About the Heritability of Behavior

Emily A. Willoughby, Alan C. Love, Matt McGue, William G. Iacono, Jack Quigley, James J. Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


The fact that genes and environment contribute differentially to variation in human behaviors, traits and attitudes is central to the field of behavior genetics. Perceptions about these differential contributions may affect ideas about human agency. We surveyed two independent samples (N = 301 and N = 740) to assess beliefs about free will, determinism, political orientation, and the relative contribution of genes and environment to 21 human traits. We find that lay estimates of genetic influence on these traits cluster into four distinct groups, which differentially predict beliefs about human agency, political orientation, and religiosity. Despite apparent ideological associations with these beliefs, the correspondence between mean lay estimates and published heritability estimates for the surveyed traits is large (r =.77). Belief in genetic determinism emerges as a modest predictor of accuracy in these lay estimates. Additionally, educated mothers with multiple children emerge as particularly accurate in their estimates of the genetic contribution to these traits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)136-153
Number of pages18
JournalBehavior genetics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 15 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding Research was supported in part by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation as part of their Genetics and Human Agency initiative (Grant Number 60780).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature.


  • Determinism
  • Environment
  • Free will
  • Genetics
  • Heritability
  • Human agency


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