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Introduction to Human Behavioral Genetics



University of Minnesota


Matt McGue

Life Sciences, Health, Social Sciences

8 weeks



One of psychology’s defining issues concerns the origins of individual differences in behavior: Why are some people outgoing and cheerful while others are withdrawn and forlorn? Why do some struggle academically while others excel at school despite minimal study? Why do some suffer the ravages of a psychotic illness like schizophrenia while others enjoy a life free of mental illness? At the core to answering these questions is the ages-old "nature-nurture" debate: Are the behavioral differences among us due predominantly to inborn natural differences or the cumulative impact of our experiences? The nature-nurture debate generated much controversy and acrimony within psychology, although today most are willing to retire the debate and declare both sides victorious. This course provides an introduction to behavioral genetics, the field within psychology that demonstrated that Nature and Nurture both play a fundamental role in the development of psychological traits. We will explore how early behavioral genetic research radically changed how psychologists conceptualized human behavior and how the mapping of the human genome is fundamentally altering current research approaches to a wide range of behavioral characteristics. The course will cover the traditional behavioral genetic methodologies of twin and adoption studies as well as modern approaches based on molecular genetic techniques. Upon completion of the course, students should have a basic understanding of how behavioral genetic research has changed psychology’s view of human behavior; the strengths and limitations of traditional behavioral genetic methodologies such as twin and adoption studies; the behavioral genetic approach to psychiatric phenotypes (to be illustrated by schizophrenia) and psychological phenotypes (to be illustrated by intelligence); and the structure and function of the human genome and the prospects for identifying the specific genetic variants underlying individual differences in behavior. What is New in Session 2? This course was first offered in 2014. The major changes in this second offering of the course include Students have the option of obtaining a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction Eight of the lecture modules have been re-recorded. Usually this was to allow us to incorporate recent research findings into the lecture; in a few cases the lectures were somewhat restructured. The re-recorded lectures are identified in the weekly welcome message. There are eight new supplementary lectures, one for each weekly unit. These supplementary lectures allow us to cover more advanced topics (e.g., epigenetic inheritance, race, ancestry and genetics, genetic prediction.) The supplementary lectures are not covered in the weekly quizzes and so are not required for students seeking the typical Statement of Accomplishment. The supplementary lectures are, however, required for those seeking to obtain a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction.

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