People tend to 'cherry pick' their genetic ancestry: UBC study

Study finds people often ignore parts of their genetic ancestry.

Study finds people often ignore parts of their genetic ancestry

A UBC study found that users of genetic ancestry tests tend to disregard some of the findings. (Getty Images)

In the age of DNA testing, it's not hard to figure out where your ancestors are from.

Dozens of companies across the world advertise the ability to transform a sample of your saliva into a detailed analysis of your genetic heritage.

But according to a new study from UBC, many people who use those types of services tend to "cherry pick" the results: they embrace some of the findings, while disregarding others.

"We don't just tend to believe in the science and believe [its] proof of racial or ethnic origins," the study's lead author Wendy Roth told host Gloria Macarenko on CBC's On the Coast.

"We tend to defer to our social interests — what we like, what sounds positive, what we want to be, and how we think others will see us," she added.

The study found that users tend to pick and choose the races they identify with, based on their preconceived biases.

Genetic ancestry

Researchers interviewed 100 genetic ancestry test users who said they identified before the test as white, black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, or Native American.

"We wanted to interview people from a variety of different ethnic and racial backgrounds," said Roth.

Each participant was asked questions about their ethnic and racial backgrounds.

The participants were then interviewed a second time, 18 months after genetic testing, to examine how they made sense of test results and how their identities had changed over time.

Roth found that many participants would identify with some of parts of their found ethnic backgrounds, while discounting others.

In fact, 59 per cent of respondents discovered new ancestry information, yet maintained their previous identities.

"Many of the non-white respondents didn't necessarily feel like discovering this new information changed who they were," said Roth. "They felt like they already had a strong sense of belonging and commitment to their identity, and it wasn't really a surprise for them."

The researchers also found that white respondents were more likely to embrace new racial identities, as long as they felt others would still accept them.

"People who don't experience any of the negative consequences of race think that it can be kind of cool or kind of exciting to try on a new identity," said Roth. "They were really looking for a sense of belonging, and a little more unique than just white."

"It really proves that so much of the idea of race and ethnicity is social rather than genetic."

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