As much as half of a child’s motivation to learn—or lack of motivation—may be driven by a genetic predisposition, according to an analysis involving more than 13,000 identical twins in six countries.
However, the study team cautioned that enjoyment of learning is a complex dynamic that isn’t easily boiled down to any single gene. Rather, it stems from an ongoing interaction between the child’s genetic makeup and environment.
“Genetic influences were significant, but so was the environment,” said study co-author Stephen Petrill, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University.
The investigation shows that a complex trait like childhood motivation should be viewed through the same lens as obesity or heart disease risk, in that “both genetic and environmental influences contributed to differences,” he said.
Petrill stressed that genetics won’t necessarily doom a child to academic failure. But “if we are going to try to create the most positive environment possible to motivate children, we also have to take into account possible biological differences as well,” he added.
The study results appear online ahead of print in the July issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
To explore the role of genetics in a child’s motivation to learn, the study authors sifted through data on identical twins ages 9 to 16 who were involved in separate studies underway in the United States, Canada, England, Germany, Japan and Russia.
Identical twins were chosen because they share identical genes, offering researchers a good opportunity to identify how much environmental differences ultimately impact personality traits.
In each study, twins completed questionnaires designed to gauge the degree to which they enjoyed a range of school subjects, and how well they felt they were doing in terms of learning each subject.
The research team determined that a child’s motivation to learn was influenced equally by shared genes and the environmental differences in the way each twin was raised. Each factor drove between 40 and 50 percent of a child’s motivation behavior.
The researchers expressed some surprise with the findings, and acknowledged that the subject matter is “sensitive” and in need of much more investigation.
For example, the researchers cautioned that it remains unclear whether (or how much) any lack of learning motivation might translate into diminished academic achievement and/or overall intelligence.
Nevertheless, the study authors concluded that there was a “striking consistency” in the findings across nationalities and ages. And they said the results seem to argue against any simplistic explanation that places sole blame for a child’s lack of interest in school on either parents or teachers.
Sarah Feuerbacher, director of Southern Methodist University’s Center for Family Counseling, echoed Petrill’s observation that genetics isn’t necessarily destiny.
Aligning poor motivation with genetic learning disabilities such as dyslexia, Feuerbacher, who was not involved with the study, acknowledged that “genetics certainly play a role in every aspect of an individual’s life, including their brain makeup, which can impact how we are able to learn in a significant way.”
But just as children with dyslexia can learn to read with proper instruction, she said motivational problems can be overcome when parents and educators emphasize teaching methods that value and draw upon each child’s natural aptitudes.
“While genetics initially and continually impacts a person’s brain and learning style,” she stressed, “it does not have to impact that person’s success in learning.”