There is No Such Thing as a Divorce Gene.

Let me state this upfront: There is no such thing as a “divorce” gene.


Not that it stopped many media outlets from reporting that such a gene had been discovered a few weeks ago after Hasse Walum, a scientist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and colleagues published a paper in the journal Biological Psychiatry linking a variant of an oxytocin receptorgene, OXTR, to women reporting more unhappiness in their long-term relationships.

Yet many of these news stories and blog posts covering the study suggested that Walum had found “proof” of why some women could not commit, the “cause” of divorce, and that we might have the tools to “predict” which women would be most successful in relationships with just a small blood sample. There are a few problems with all those statements. 1. Genes aren’t deterministic. 2. This was a correlational association study. 3. None of the women who participated were actually divorced.

“It is very interesting, of course, that we found an association between women reporting marital crisis and a gene that we know from prairie vole research that is important to forming a pair-bond,” he told me. “But there are so many environmental factors that are more important if you want to assess the risk of marital crisis or divorce. I was surprised by the ‘divorce’ gene talk, especially since we didn’t collect any real data on divorce—and don’t think it is the correct way to view our study.”

Of course, Walum has been through this kind of exaggerated media circus before. In 2008, he published a paper linking AVPR1A, a vasopressin receptor gene, to men being unhappier in their long-term relationships. Previous work in prairie voles has shown that vasopressin plays an important role in male monogamy and bonding behaviors. The press went wild, calling AVPR1A the “cheating” or the “infidelity” gene. But again, the study was misinterpreted. Walum and his team did not actually ask their human study participants about whether or not they had been unfaithful.

Walum argues that there is a lot of important information that can be gleaned about how and why people fall in love from gene association studies—but these are only first steps in a long journey to understand the neurobiological basis of human relationships. He also cautions that we have to be very careful in how we interpret such studies.

“If you want to explain all the variation in human pair-bonding, you need to look a lot further than just a gene,” Walum says. “I think there is quite a bit of biology involved, but genes can only explain a bit about these behaviors. It is a variety of different factors working together —your genes, your culture, your age, your partner — that creates the true impact. You cannot say that one of these things is more important than another.”

Photo courtesy of thumb/Shutterstock.com.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less

Steven Pinker's 13 rules for writing better

The Harvard psychologist loves reading authors' rules for writing. Here are his own.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 21: Steven Pinker speaks onstage during OZY Fest 2018 at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park on July 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ozy Media)
Personal Growth
  • Steven Pinker is many things: linguist, psychologist, optimist, Harvard professor, and author.
  • When it comes to writing, he's a student and a teacher.
  • Here's are his 13 rules for writing better, more simply, and more clearly.
Keep reading Show less

Want to age gracefully? A new study says live meaningfully

Thinking your life is worthwhile is correlated with a variety of positive outcomes.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds that adults who feel their lives are meaningful have better health and life outcomes.
  • Adults who felt their lives were worthwhile tended to be more social and had healthier habits.
  • The findings could be used to help improve the health of older adults.
Keep reading Show less