Nature Human Behaviour 2019;3:48-56. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0483-4
Turnwald BP, Parker Goyer J, Boles DZ, Slider A, Delp SL, Crum AJ
Millions of people now access personal genetic risk estimates for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer and obesity. While this information can be informative, research on placebo and nocebo effects suggests that learning of one’s genetic risk may evoke physiological changes consistent with the expected risk profile. Here we tested whether merely learning of one’s genetic risk for disease alters one’s actual risk by making people more likely to exhibit the expected changes in gene-related physiology, behaviour and subjective experience. Individuals were genotyped for actual genetic risk and then randomly assigned to receive either a ‘high-risk’ or ‘protected’ genetic test result for obesity via cardiorespiratory exercise capacity (experiment 1, N = 116) or physiological satiety (experiment 2, N = 107) before engaging in a task in which genetic risk was salient. Merely receiving genetic risk information changed individuals’ cardiorespiratory physiology, perceived exertion and running endurance during exercise, and changed satiety physiology and perceived fullness after food consumption in a self-fulfilling manner. Effects of perceived genetic risk on outcomes were sometimes greater than the effects associated with actual genetic risk. If simply conveying genetic risk information can alter actual risk, clinicians and ethicists should wrestle with appropriate thresholds for when revealing genetic risk is warranted.