Can DNA revelations change your views on race?
Does it influence people's views on race when they learn about their own DNA roots? Not much, according to a new research project.
"There would be no such thing as extremism in the world if people knew their heritage."
That's the message of a popular advert from Momondo and AncestryDNA. In fact, DNA ancestry tests are often marketed with the claim that these tests can promote the appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity by illuminating unknown roots of ancestors from other cultural backgrounds.
DNA ancestry tests have become wildly popular in just a few years. By 2019, 26 million home tests had already been sold worldwide. All it takes is less than $100, a saliva sample and a six-week wait to receive your unique profile.
We see no evidence of more or less racial tolerance among the study participants – regardless of what DNA results the participants expected, what results they actually received and their prior knowledge of genetics.
White Americans under the microscope
While millions of people assume that they have now tested for their true racial or ethnic ancestry, the implications of this knowledge are largely unknown.
DNA ancestry testing companies argue that these tests increase recognition of human diversity. On the other hand, researchers have hypothesised that DNA ancestry tests reinforce a perception of 'race' as biologically meaningful and that this will lead to further racial segregation.
To test the two hypotheses, researchers from the US, Norway and Denmark conducted experiments in which white Americans took either fake or real DNA ancestry tests.
"For a variety of reasons, we focused on white Americans. This is the population group that makes the most use of DNA ancestry tests. At the same time, white Americans' support for the multicultural society is particularly low," explains Milan Obaidi, Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Copenhagen.
No evidence of a new racial outlook
After the carefully controlled experiments, which took into account the subjects' expectations and reactions to the test results, the researchers conclude that both theories linking DNA ancestry tests to changing views on race and culture are wrong.
"We see no evidence of more or less racial tolerance among the study participants – regardless of what DNA results the participants expected, what results they actually received and their prior knowledge of genetics," says Milan Obaidi.
At first glance, the researchers find it surprising that DNA ancestry tests don't seem to affect people's views on race. One explanation can be found in a previous study of people's reactions to DNA ancestry results.
"It shows that very few people can fully embrace their new identity or engage in new cross-cultural interactions after gaining new insights into their DNA," mentions Milan Obaidi.
He and the other researchers urge companies that test DNA ancestry to exercise greater caution when advertising their products and when presenting their results to customers.
"Not only are millions of people being tested, but many of these individuals are sharing their results with friends and family, including on social media. In this way, any potential impact of DNA ancestry testing can extend far beyond the people being tested," he concludes.