Associate 2013-14

Brent W Roberts


Gene Expression and Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is a family of personality traits that describes individual differences in the propensity to be self-controlled, responsible to others, hard-working, orderly, and rule-following. Previous research into the genetic basis for this trait has been based on the assumption that genes cause conscientiousness. The broader genomic approach, which accounts for how environmental factors influence the expression of genes, offers a new paradigm for a deeper analysis of conscientiousness.

During his Center appointment, Professor Roberts will examine gene-expression differences in the immune system among subjects who differ in degrees of conscientiousness. He will conduct three studies in order to (a) identify the genomic signature of conscientiousness; (b) test whether the genomic factors linked to conscientiousness explain the trait’s relation to physical health; and (c) determine the early life experiences that contribute to differences in gene expression that are linked to conscientiousness.

In the first study, he will select groups who rate high or low on conscientiousness and attempt to establish reliable gene-expression differences by testing their blood for increased expression of genes related to inflammation and decreased expression of genes involved in innate antiviral responses. In the second, he will cross high and low levels of conscientiousness with high and low experiences of childhood socioeconomic deprivation. In the third, he will conduct a co-twin control study designed to account for genetic similarities and determine environmental antecedents to the genomic differences associated with high and low conscientiousness.

The trait of conscientiousness has been linked to physical health, longevity, marital stability, and occupational success. Professor Roberts’ genomic approach to studying this trait opens up new possibilities for exploring the relationships between genes and social behaviors.