Genetics and I-O Psychology

The idea that genetics may play a determining role in work behavior and work-related phenomena does not have a particularly long past in terms of actual research activity among industrial-organizational psychologists. Whereas research in other domains of psychology convincingly have shown that human behavior is influenced by genetic and biological characteristics of individuals, it was only within the past 10 years or so that researchers in the organizational domain have developed evidence that traits, attitudes, and behaviors relevant to the workplace also have a genetic component. There are essentially two streams of research that have pursued this issue. The first stream stems from I/O psychologists writing in the area of evolutionary psychology, where arguments are made that certain differences between individuals or classes of individuals have an evolutionary explanation. For example, several I/O psychologists have presented the argument that sex differences in power are caused by differences in the way men and women use influence behaviors in small groups and that these differences were sculpted in part by natural selection. Others have made the case that organizational processes and behavior have been developed via evolutionary history. Essentially, the argument is that through natural selection, sexual selection, and adaptation, a wide range of psychological phenomena (e.g., behaviors, attitudes, traits, decision-making styles, etc.) in humans and relevant to the workplace have evolved and can be explained via this genetic process. In fact, a special issue of the Journal of Organizational Behavior has been organized around the issues of evolutionary processes as they influence organizational phenomena.

A second stream of research has also been evolving over the past few years: the application of behavioral genetics methodologies to the study of workplace outcomes. Behavior genetics is essentially the exploration of the relative contributions of genetics and the environment to human behavior. Whereas evolutionary psychology is essentially theory based and provides logical explanations for why certain work phenomena may exist, the application of behavior genetics methodologies helps to provide empirical data for exploring the role of genetic and environmental factors in workplace phenomena.

Behavior Genetics Methodologies

There are several research designs used in estimating the role of genetics by researchers in the behavior genetics arena. Most researchers use twins as their subjects by examining the similarities and differences between identical (or monozygotic) and fraternal (or dizygotic) twins. Because identical twins share 100% of their genes in common and fraternal twins share an average of 50% of their genes, the greater similarity in identical twins than in fraternal twins on any measured variable is a sign that genetic influences are involved. This design assumes that the two twin types share approximately the same common environment in their early developmental lives; that is, that each twin pair experiences the same global family treatments such as income levels, books in the household, and similar treatment by mothers and fathers; and such factors did not produce greater similarity among the identical twins. Sophisticated statistical methods are now used to not only determine if variables are under some genetic control but also to estimate the proportion of variance attributable to genetic factors, as well as to common family and nonfamily environmental factors. Another design that is used, but rarely, is the use of identical twins who were separated at birth and raised apart. Because they were raised in different and independent environments, the similarity of such twins is also an indicator of genetic influence. Researchers also use adoption studies where the relative similarities of adopted children to their biological and adoptive family members are used to estimate genetic influences; however, this design has not been used by I/O psychologists as of yet. Results of studies employing these various methodologies typically report findings in the form a heritability value ranging from .00 indicating no variance in a variable explained by genetics to 1.00 where 100% of the variance is accounted for by genetics. (Obvious physical characteristics such as height and weight show high heritabilities and might be used as a benchmark.) Finally, research methods using path modeling techniques where the relationships between specified variables have been derived via meta-analytic procedures are now being used to derive heritability estimates.

Behavioral Genetics Research and Organizational Behavior

Researchers in the I/O area have been interested in the role of genetics as they influence certain classes of constructs: traits, attitudes, values and interests, affect, and behaviors. Two reviews are available that provide more comprehensive information about research in these areas (Arvey & Bouchard, 1994; Ilies, Arvey, & Bouchard, in press). Following is a summary of these findings.

General Cognitive Ability (GCA)

Where estimates of genetic influences on general cognitive ability (GCA) in the reported literature vary considerably, there is little debate on whether such genetic influences exist. Estimates are that the heritability of intelligence falls somewhere between .50 and .80. There is also evidence that the heritability of IQ increases with age.


Numerous studies have been conducted on the heritability of different personality traits or dimensions. Industrial/organizational psychologists have been interested in personality traits as predictors of other work behavior and frequently have adopted a five-factor model of personality termed the Big Five. Research dealing with these Big Five factors show relatively high and consistent heritabilities. For example, using data and research reported in several behavioral genetics studies conducted in multiple countries, J. C. Loehlin (1992) estimated the heritabilities as .41, .49, .45, .35, and .38 for emotional stability, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, respectively. Also, evidence for the heritability of affective traits has accumulated where heritabilities of .50 and .44 were found for the trait measurement of positive and negative emotionality.


An early application of behavioral genetics methods for estimating the heritability of job satisfaction was presented by Arvey, Bouchard, Segal, and Abraham (1989) using a sample of twins reared apart. Their data showed that genetic factors explained approximately 30% of the variance in job satisfaction scores, but this result did not go unchallenged. This finding was replicated later by Arvey and colleagues as well as other researchers.

Work Values

Research has also been conducted examining whether genetic factors are associated with work values. Results from one study showed that five value constructs (achievement, status, altruism, safety, and autonomy) had heritabilities ranging from .18 to .56, with a median of .38. The findings from this study have also been replicated.


The issue of whether leadership is a function of genetics has been around for a long time—the famous nature versus nurture debate. Behavioral genetics methods have just begun to explore this issue scientifically. One group of researchers showed that a substantial proportion of the variance in transformational and transactional leadership is associated with genetic factors. A more recent study using a sample of more than 300 twin pairs estimated the heritability of occupational leadership achievement—that is, whether individuals were actually in formal positions of leadership—and found it to be around .30. Research around the issue of whether genetics interacts with specific environmental features to influence leadership is ongoing.

Performance Behaviors

There has been some research on the heritability of counterproductive work behaviors. One study using a male twin sample explored whether a scale called Censured Job Performance, consisting of items associated with counterproductive work behavior and low job performance (reprimands, probation, or performance-related dismissal), was heritable; the resulting heritability was .37.

Mediation and Interaction Models

Most researchers using behavioral genetics methods and models agree that it is quite unlikely that any specific one gene, or even several, have a direct impact on work behavior; that is, they don’t directly influence work attitudes or behavior. Instead, these researchers posit models where the genetic aspects of individuals may have more broad impact on attraction: avoidance patterns, which in turn, over time, help to shape more specific behavior and attitudinal dispositions. There has been some investigation into whether personality and cognitive variables mediate the relationships between genetic factors and other work phenomena such as leadership and job satisfaction. For example, one study examined whether the Big Five personality factors are primarily responsible (through mediation) for the genetic influences of job satisfaction using path analysis of meta-analytic correlations. Although the authors found that these factors mediated only 24% of the genetic variance in job satisfaction, the affective traits of positive and negative emotionality mediated 45% of the genetic effect. These authors made the observation that broader and more abstract constructs seem to be more influenced by genetic factors than narrower and more specific constructs. More research of this nature is needed to further pin down just how genetic factors operate to influence work and organizational constructs.

Researchers in this area have also called for more investigation to determine with greater specificity which environmental factors influence organizational phenomena as well as whether there are important interactions between features of the environment that interact with genetic structures to effect work phenomena. This would be important information for I/O psychologists in terms of engineering environments that might have greater (or lesser) impact on individuals working in organizations.


Although the study of genetics with regard to work-related phenomena is in an infant stage, research is accumulating at an increasing rate. Compared with what we knew 10 years ago, the frontier of this particular field is growing at a rapid pace. New methodologies and statistical models are being applied. Results from the established literature base make it clear that biological mechanisms and certainly genetic influences play a role in determining work behaviors in the form of personality, cognitions, attitudes, and the behavior of individuals in work settings.


  1. Arvey, R. D., & Bouchard, T. J., Jr. (1994). Genetics, twins, and organizational behavior. In B. M. Staw & L. L. Cummings (Eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior (Vol. 16, pp. 47-82). Greenwich, CT: JAI.
  2. Arvey, R. D., Bouchard, T. J., Segal, N. L., & Abraham, L. A. (1989). Job satisfaction: Environmental and genetic components. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 187-192.
  3. Bouchard, T. J., Jr. (1998). Genetic and environmental influences on adult intelligence and special mental abilities. Human Biology, 70, 257-279.
  4. Bouchard, T. J., Jr., & Loehlin, J. C. (2001). Genes, personality and evolution. Behavior Genetics, 31, 243-273.
  5. Ilies, R., Arvey, R. D., & Bouchard, T. J., Jr. (in press). Behavioral genetics and organizational behavior: A review and agenda for future research. Journal of Organizational Behavior.
  6. Loehlin, J. C. (1992). Genes and environment in personality development. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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