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Human Behavior Genetics

PSYC 408, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Instructor: Jaime Derringer, jderr@illinois.edu, https://psychology.illinois.edu/directory/profile/jderr
Class meeting times: Tuesdays & Thursdays 11:00 am - 12:20 pm in 32 Psychology
Office hour: Wednesdays 1pm - 2pm or by appointment (email) in 419 Psychology
Course Websites: https://jaimederringer.github.io/psyc408/, https://compass2g.illinois.edu/
Have a question? Email or tweet me.


There are no prerequisites for PSYC 408. If you think the material sounds interesting, this class is for you. This semester, we will:

  • Understand how the basic principles of genetics can be used in the study of behavior.
  • Evaluate the extent to which human individual differences are influenced by genes
  • Consider the implications of genetic knowledge in psychology.

This is a highly interactive class. Success depends on students learning from and respecting one another. This respect includes the time and effort contributed by each student to the learning of the group.

The aim of this course is to provide students with a clearer understanding of the contribution that genes make to individual differences in behavior. Students will be in a better position to evaluate evidence for and against genetic and environmental influences. They will also gain an appreciation of the interrelationships of biological and social causes of behavior and will gain a better understanding of influences that might affect themselves and others.

The course will be intellectually demanding, and will require a substantial amount of reading, active in-class discussion, and attentive development of a serious term paper. The course will require about 3 to 6 hours per week outside class for readings and assignments. If you have any concerns about your preparedness for this course, please talk with the instructor.

xkcd, "DNA"


Grades are assigned based on your final point total at the end of the semester. Points come from two sources: (1) attendance and participation and (2) a term paper.

Letter Grade A B C D F
Point Total 90 - 100 80 - 89.999 70 - 79.999 60 - 69.999 < 60

Attendance & Participation (50% total grade)

Starting Week 3 (after the add deadline), you earn 2 points per class meeting for attendance and participation. Everyone gets one absence without losing points, no questions asked. If you miss more than one day, you may make-up the points by submitting (email) a 500-word essay on the topic(s) covered within 1 week.

Term Paper (50% total grade)

You may choose any topic related to the course content, as long as I approve it. The final paper should be about 3,500 to 4,000 words (12 – 15 pages) for undergrads, or 4,000 to 4,500 words (15 – 18 pages) for grad students, plus references. I care more about clarity, insight, evidence, and the flow of argument than about length. Expect to read at least 10 – 20 published research papers on your topic of choice. For graduate students, plan to produce a paper that you could turn around and submit as a review in a decent journal or a book chapter.

Graduate students’ performance is evaluated against higher expectations for intellectual rigor, argument, and synthesis. Undergrads and grad students are graded separately.

All assignments are due by 11:59 pm on their listed due dates (always Thursday, unless noted otherwise). Late assignments lose 20% credit per calendar day. Assignments due on Thursday reduce to 80% of the earned points if submitted on Friday, 60% on Saturday, 40% on Sunday, 20% on Monday.

Select a topic for your term paper and find 5 references. Pick something you're interested in!

Use APA format for the references. The Purdue OWL website is a handy free guide for APA formatting. If you find a reference on Google Scholar, click the image of the quotation mark to copy the APA-formatted citation.

Summaries of at least 10 references related to your paper topic. Especially for empirical articles, you may want to use the Empirical Article Summary template.

The FINAL paper will be about 3,500 to 4,500 words (12 - 18 pages) plus 10-20 references; your draft should be at least 8 pages of text (assuming double-spaced 12pt Times New Roman or 11pt Arial, not including references). The more complete your draft, however, the more useful your peer review feedback will be and the less work you'll need to put in to produce the final version. A suggestion for how to move from your 10 article summaries to a draft of your paper:

  1. Sort your 10 article summaries from the Annotated Bibliography into 2-4 thematically/topically similar groups
  2. Give each theme or topic group a descriptive title (like, "Heritability", "Associated Genes", "Ethical Considerations", "Non-Human Animal Studies", "Developmental Effects", "Sex Differences", "Gene-Environment Interplay", "Overlap with Other Phenotypes" - relevant topics will vary, but whatever is useful for organizing the articles you've summarized)
  3. Paste the article summaries together by sub-topic. Then, paste the sub-topics together, including the descriptive title as the sub-header for that section.
  4. Before the first topic, write an introduction: what is your topic, and why is it important?
  5. After the last topic, write a Discussion section where you briefly summarize what your above detailed description of the current literature shows, and what in your opinion would be the best recommended next steps for research on this topic to move forward.
  6. Once you have this rough first draft, edit with special consideration toward the issues we identified in the Science Communication activity of how to summarize research: Good, Bad, Improve, and Follow-Up.
  7. If you notice while editing that one (or more) of your subtopics is a little sparse, find additional research on that topic to fill out what you already have.
Draft Paper Rubric

Proficient Competent Novice
Topic Coverage 3 points
Provides broad coverage of a range of behavior genetic approaches to the topic, or in-depth coverage of a specific area/methods of genetic research on the topic.
1.5 points 0 points
Presented research is not clearly related to course themes.
Variety of References 3 points
Information comes from a variety of primary research reports.
1.5 points 0 points
Over-reliance on one or two existing review papers of the topic and/or excessive use of quotations (research findings not restated in student's own words).
Organization 2 points
Provides a coherent/logical flow between topics. Includes some elements of synthesis or overall summary.
1 point 0 points
Information is presented as if in list format, with no transition or synthesis across information.
Grammar 2 points
Easy to read. (Does not need to be free of minor grammar or spelling errors or in final/perfect APA format, as long as content is clear.)
1 point 0 points
Widespread grammar/spelling errors or sentence fragments make draft unreadable.

Create a brief piece (blog post, tweet thread, wikipedia page, video, infographic, or graphic storytelling) to convey information about your paper topic to the public.

Provide structured, journal-style feedback on 2 others’ draft papers. You should follow the example peer review structure.

Final version of your digital media piece (actually posting it somewhere is encouraged, but optional).

Evaluated on topic coverage, organization, grammar, APA formatting, and responsiveness to reviewer comments.

Final Paper Rubric

Proficient Competent Novice
Topic Coverage 6 points
Provides broad coverage of a range of behavior genetic approaches to the topic, or in-depth coverage of a specific area/method of genetic research on the topic. Information comes from a variety of primary research reports and includes the student's own synthesis or summary of the current research literature. Concepts are clearly presented and technical terms are defined.
3 points
Coverage of the topic is superficial. Some technical terms remain undefined or there are points that are not clearly presented/described.
0 points
Presented research is not clearly related to course themes. Excessive use of quotations (research findings not restated in the student's own words). Over-reliance on one or two existing review papers of the topic, instead of primary research reports.
Organization 1 point
Well organized and easy to follow with a clear narrative flow.
0.5 points
Specific topics clearly organized into sections, but little to no transition between topics and/or lack of "big picture" summary of topic, either in introduction or conclusion sections.
0 points
Little to no clear organization; difficult to follow or understand topic being addressed or argument made in several sections.
Grammar 1 point
Near perfect grammar and spelling.
0.5 points
Several noticeable grammar or spelling errors.
0 points
Frequent errors of grammar or spelling that make the paper difficult to read.
Formatting 1 point
Near perfect APA style, including paper structure and formatting, title page, abstract, in-text citations, and reference list.
0.5 points
Several noticeable errors in APA style.
0 points
Little to no evidence of use of APA style; missing a major element such as title, abstract, or citations.
Response to Peer Review 1 point
Final paper is clearly responsive to reasonable suggestions made during peer review process.
0.5 points
Some improvements made in response to peer review but several major concerns or reasonable suggestions that were made in peer review are ignored.
0 points
Little to no evidence of improvement since the peer-reviewed draft version.


Free versions of assigned readings are linked wherever possible. Assigned readings that are only available behind a paywall are posted for students on the UIUC-login-required course site at https://compass2g.illinois.edu/.

Lectures in the first half of the semester are focused on building a basis of knowledge about concepts, methods, and themes in human behavior genetics. Most weeks will be taught in a 'flipped classroom' approach. You are expected to do assigned readings before the Tuesday class, so that you can fully participate in the in-class activities.

Citron tags indicate things to do (mostly, read) before the Tuesday class.

Gray-blue tags describe major in-class activities for the week.

Teal tags identify assignments that are due that week (by Thursday at 11:59pm, unless otherwise noted).

A major course goal is completion of a substantial term paper. In any weeks where the assigned readings are relatively light, it is assumed that you will be reading papers for your term paper.

Week 1: What We Know and What We Don't

Read Plomin, R., DeFries, J. C., Knopik, V. S., & Neiderhiser, J. M. (2016). Top 10 replicated findings from behavioral genetics. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(1), 3-23. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691615617439

Read Briley, D. A., Livengood, J., Derringer, J., Tucker-Drob, E. M., Fraley, R. C., & Roberts, B. W. (2019). Interpreting behavior genetic models: seven developmental processes to understand. Behavior Genetics, 49(2), 196-210. http://publish.illinois.edu/dabriley/files/2018/11/Briley-2018-Interpreting-behavior-genetic-models.pdf

Watch Crash Course: Biology [youtube] has all the background information and keywords you need to get started in this course. A good review if you haven't taken (or don't remember) biology.

Week 2: We've Been Wrong Before

Read Caspi, A., Sugden, K., Moffitt, T. E., Taylor, A., Craig, I. W., Harrington, H., ... & Poulton, R. (2003). Influence of life stress on depression: moderation by a polymorphism in the 5-HTT gene. Science, 301(5631), 386-389. student copy on compass

Read Border, R., Johnson, E. C., Evans, L. M., Smolen, A., Berley, N., Sullivan, P. F., & Keller, M. C. (2019). No support for historical candidate gene or candidate gene-by-interaction hypotheses for major depression across multiple large samples. American Journal of Psychiatry, 176(5), 376-387. student copy on compass

Read Alexander, S. (7 May 2019). 5-HTTLPR: A pointed review. Slate Star Codex. https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/05/07/5-httlpr-a-pointed-review/

Current Event Many Genes Influence Same-Sex Sexuality, Not a Single ‘Gay Gene’, The New York Times

Lecture Slides The Story of MAOA: "The Warrior Gene"

Week 3: Ancestry and Scientific Racism

Read Loehlin, J. C. (2009). History of behavior genetics. In Handbook of Behavior Genetics (pp. 3-11). Springer, New York, NY. student copy on compass

Skim History of eugenics (n.d.). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_eugenics

Watch Crash Course Biology #18 Population Genetics (11:03)

Read Martin, A. R., Kanai, M., Kamatani, Y., Okada, Y., Neale, B. M., & Daly, M. J. (2019). Clinical use of current polygenic risk scores may exacerbate health disparities. Nature Genetics, 51(4), 584-591. student copy on compass

Read Tsosie, K. S., Yracheta, J. M., & Dickenson, D. (2019). Overvaluing individual consent ignores risks to tribal participants. Nature Reviews Genetics, 20(9), 497-498. student copy on compass

Current Event Geneticists Are Untangling the Mystery of Left-Handedness, Gizmodo

Lecture Slides A (very brief) History of Eugenics

Video Eugenicist Movement in America: Victims Coming Forward

Lecture Slides Population Genetics & Ancestry

Survey Core Phenotypes jigsaw preferences

Week 4: Finding and Reading BG Papers

Read Luo, J., Derringer, J., Briley, D. A., & Roberts, B. W. (2017). Genetic and environmental pathways underlying personality traits and perceived stress: Concurrent and longitudinal twin studies. European Journal of Personality, 31(6), 614-629. https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2127

We will go through this paper as an example of How to Read a Twin Study.

Read Day, F. R., Ong, K. K., & Perry, J. R. (2018). Elucidating the genetic basis of social interaction and isolation. Nature Communications, 9(1), 2457. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-04930-1

We will go through this paper as an example of How to Read a GWAS.

Read Polderman, T. J., Benyamin, B., De Leeuw, C. A., Sullivan, P. F., Van Bochoven, A., Visscher, P. M., & Posthuma, D. (2015). Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies. Nature Genetics, 47(7), 702-709. student copy on compass

Read Churchhouse, C. & Neale, B. (2017 September 20). Rapid GWAS of thousands of phenotypes for 337,000 samples in the UK Biobank. http://www.nealelab.is/blog/2017/7/19/rapid-gwas-of-thousands-of-phenotypes-for-337000-samples-in-the-uk-biobank

Browse Atlas of GWAS Summary Statistics. https://atlas.ctglab.nl/

Resource Empirical Article Summary template

Activity Citation Quickdraw

Teams compete to find a paper to answer a specific question. Report sample size and major finding. Largest & newest wins the point. Tie goes to most highly cited.

Survey Do Genes Cause Behavior? jigsaw preferences

Assignment Due Draft Bibliography submit via compass

Week 5: Core Phenotypes

Read Team-specific papers

Bai, D., Yip, B. H. K., Windham, G. C., Sourander, A., Francis, R., Yoffe, R., ... & Gissler, M. (2019). Association of genetic and environmental factors with autism in a 5-country cohort. JAMA Psychiatry.

Grove, J., Ripke, S., Als, T. D., Mattheisen, M., Walters, R. K., Won, H., ... & Awashti, S. (2019). Identification of common genetic risk variants for autism spectrum disorder. Nature Genetics, 51(3), 431-444. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6454898/

Haworth, C. M., Wright, M. J., Luciano, M., Martin, N. G., de Geus, E. J., van Beijsterveldt, C. E., ... & Kovas, Y. (2010). The heritability of general cognitive ability increases linearly from childhood to young adulthood. Molecular Psychiatry, 15(11), 1112-1120. https://www.nature.com/articles/mp200955

Trampush, J. W., Yang, M. L. Z., Yu, J., Knowles, E., Davies, G., Liewald, D. C., ... & Christoforou, A. (2017). GWAS meta-analysis reveals novel loci and genetic correlates for general cognitive function: a report from the COGENT consortium. Molecular Psychiatry, 22(3), 336-435. https://www.nature.com/articles/mp2016244

Kendler, K. S., & Prescott, C. A. (1999). A population-based twin study of lifetime major depression in men and women. Archives of General Psychiatry, 56(1), 39-44. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/204631

Wray, N. R., Ripke, S., Mattheisen, M., Trzaskowski, M., Byrne, E. M., Abdellaoui, A., ... & Bacanu, S. A. (2018). Genome-wide association analyses identify 44 risk variants and refine the genetic architecture of major depression. Nature Genetics, 50(5), 668-681. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5934326/

Liu, M., Jiang, Y., Wedow, R., Li, Y., Brazel, D. M., Chen, F., ... & Zhan, X. (2019). Association studies of up to 1.2 million individuals yield new insights into the genetic etiology of tobacco and alcohol use. Nature Genetics, 51(2), 237-244. https://europepmc.org/articles/pmc6358542

Rhee, S. H., Hewitt, J. K., Young, S. E., Corley, R. P., Crowley, T. J., & Stallings, M. C. (2003). Genetic and environmental influences on substance initiation, use, and problem use in adolescents. Archives of General Psychiatry, 60(12), 1256-1264. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/208068

Silventoinen, K., Sammalisto, S., Perola, M., Boomsma, D. I., Cornes, B. K., Davis, C., ... & Luciano, M. (2003). Heritability of adult body height: a comparative study of twin cohorts in eight countries. Twin Research and Human Genetics, 6(5), 399-408.https://doi.org/10.1375/twin.6.5.399

Wood, A. R., Esko, T., Yang, J., Vedantam, S., Pers, T. H., Gustafsson, S., ... & Amin, N. (2014). Defining the role of common variation in the genomic and biological architecture of adult human height. Nature Genetics, 46(11), 1173-1186. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4250049/

Hilker, R., Helenius, D., Fagerlund, B., Skytthe, A., Christensen, K., Werge, T. M., ... & Glenthøj, B. (2018). Heritability of schizophrenia and schizophrenia spectrum based on the nationwide Danish twin register. Biological Psychiatry, 83(6), 492-498.

Ripke, S., Neale, B. M., Corvin, A., Walters, J. T., Farh, K. H., Holmans, P. A., ... & Pers, T. H. (2014). Biological insights from 108 schizophrenia-associated genetic loci. Nature, 511(7510), 421-427. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature13595/

Activity Core Phenotypes jigsaw

Each team will read and complete article summaries of 3-5 papers addressing a commonly studied phenotype in behavior genetics, and prepare a blog post style summary. You will then rotate into mixed groups to share and compare findings across phenotypes.

Week 6: Do Genes Cause Behavior? I: Methods Teams 

Read Briley, D. A., Livengood, J., & Derringer, J. (2018). Behaviour genetic frameworks of causal reasoning for personality psychology. European Journal of Personality, 32(3), 202-220. http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/14550/

Read Team-specific papers (TBA)

Activity Do Genes Cause Behavior? jigsaw

Each team will read several papers describing or applying a specific method that is intended to address causation. You will prepare a short summary of what questions the method can be used to answer, how it works, and limitations to what we can learn from it.

Week 7: Do Genes Cause Behavior? II: Phenotype Teams

Read Team-specific papers (TBA)

Re-read your methods paper that was specifically about your phenotype. Skim your team's phenotype papers from across the other methods.

Activity Do Genes Cause Behavior? jigsaw

Each member will teach their team about their method, drawing from the paper about their method that focused on the team's phenotype. The team will prepare a blog post style summary of the phenotype, incorporating information from across methods.

Week 8: Annotated Bibliography Workshop

Assignment Due Annotated Bibliography

Week 9: Science Communication

Prepare Find an example of popular press coverage (e.g. an online news article or blog post) of a behavior genetic research paper, and track down the original paper.

You can search general news feeds by topic, e.g. https://news.google.com/search?q=behavior+genetics. Anything that makes reference to (at least) one specific published paper will work, so that you can compare the reporting of the paper to the paper itself.

Activity Scicomm constructive criticism carousel

Week 10: Draft Paper Workshop

Survey Miscellaneous Phenotypes jigsaw preferences

Week 11: Gattaca

Read Kirby, D. A. (2000). The new eugenics in cinema: Genetic determinism and gene therapy in "GATTACA". Science Fiction Studies, 27(2), 193-215. https://www.depauw.edu/sfs/essays/gattaca.htm

Activity Watch and discuss Gattaca (1997)

Assignment Due Draft Paper

Week 12: Miscellaneous Phenotypes

Prepare Begin searching and skimming papers relevant to your team's phenotype.

Activity Miscellaneous Phenotypes jigsaw

Each team will find 3-5 papers addressing a less frequently studied phenotype in behavior genetics, and prepare a blog post style summary. You will then rotate into mixed groups to share and compare findings across phenotypes.

Assignment Due Draft Digital Media Project

Week 13: Digital Media Project Workshop

Assignment Due Peer Reviews

Week 14: Genetics at Trial

Read/Listen Hagerty, B. B. (2010 July 1). Can your genes make you murder?. On NPR Morning Edition. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128043329

Read Berryessa, C. M., Martinez-Martin, N. A., & Allyse, M. A. (2013). Ethical, legal and social issues surrounding research on genetic contributions to anti-social behavior. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18(6), 605-610. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3850765/

Activity Genetics at Trial debate

Assignment Due Final Digital Media Project

Week 15: Wrap-Up

Assignment Due Final Paper (Friday December 13)


A substantial component of this course entails learning to use available resources. Resources will be added as they come up.

University Student Resources

Disability Services


The Disability Resources & Educational Services office is available to facilitate the removal of barriers and ensure reasonable accommodations. You can share your letter of accommodation with the instructor either in person or by email.

Emergencies or Personal Matters


The Student Assistance Center is on the 3rd floor of the Turner Student Services Center, or contact them at helpdean@illinois.edu or 217-333-0050. A letter from the Dean of Students is required for exceptions to the syllabus.

If you need help with an urgent matter after hours (NOT a previous or anticipated absence from class), contact the Emergency Dean at 217-649-4129.

Writing and Research