Deterministic Attributions of Behavior: Brain versus Genes


This research examined the influence of social-, genetic-, and brain-based explanations on attributions of others’ behaviors. Participants were university students in Studies 1 (N = 140), 2 (N = 142), and 3 (N = 260). Participants read a vignette about an individual who possessed several undesirable behaviors and answered related questions. The first two studies had within-subjects designs. Participants in Study 1 were provided with social-, genetic-, and brain-based explanations for the individual’s behavior. The order of the genetic- and brain-based explanations was reversed in Study 2. Study 3 used the same materials, but had a between-subjects design where participants were assigned to one of three groups that differed in their explanation: social, genetic, or brain. Participants also completed measures of social desirability and free will beliefs in all three studies. Consistently, biological explanations had more influence than social explanations on ratings of others’ responsibility, capacity for change, and sentencing considerations. There was inconsistent evidence across the three studies, however, that brain-based explanations had more influence than genetic-based explanations. Interestingly, Free will scores were associated with aspects of the individual’s behavior in the social condition but not in the biological conditions. Additional social cognition research is needed to determine whether brain-based explanations are just one specific instantiation of biological explanations or whether they are unique in this regard when it comes to the attributions we make about others’ behaviors.

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Data availability

The data, materials, and R-based code that support the findings of these studies are available from the corresponding author, [K. Peters], upon reasonable request.


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Author information




K. Peters and A. Kalinina developed the study concept and design for Studies 1 and 2. K. Peters and N. Downer developed the study concept and design for Study 3. Data collection was performed by A. Kalinina (Studies 1 and 2) and N. Downer (Study 3). K. Peters performed the data analysis and interpretation. K. Peters drafted the manuscript with the assistance of A.Van Elswyk. A.Kalinina. N. Downer, and A. Van Elswyk provided critical comments for revision. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kevin R. Peters.

Ethics declarations

Ethics approval

This study was performed in line with the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki. Approval was granted by the Research Ethics Board of Trent University (File # 23499 for Studies 1 and 2; File # 25497 for Study 3).

Consent to participate

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the studies.

Consent to publish

As part of their informed consent form, all participants consented to their anonymized data being used in research publication(s).

Conflicts of interest/Competing interests

The authors have no relevant financial or non-financial interests to disclose.

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Peters, K.R., Kalinina, A., Downer, N.M. et al. Deterministic Attributions of Behavior: Brain versus Genes. Neuroethics (2021).

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  • Attributions
  • Responsibility
  • Determinism
  • Neuroscience