Declining response rates have a been a problem in survey research for a long time.  Now a study by Lori Foster Thompson of North Carolina State University, Zhen Zhang of Arizona State University, and Richard D. Arvey of National University of Singapore, there may be a genetic predisposition to decline to participate in surveys.  Or maybe not.

The study, “Genetic underpinnings of survey response,” is to be published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. A press release  from North Carolina State University quotes Dr. Foster:  “We wanted to know whether people are genetically predisposed to ignore requests for survey participation.  We found that there is a pretty strong genetic predisposition to not reply to surveys.”

The researchers  sent a survey to more that 1,000 sets of twins, some identical (and possessing identical DNA) and some fraternal (no more genetically similar than any two siblings).  The study found that the it was possible to predict the propensity to respond for one identical twin from the response (or non-response) of the other twin, but there was no such relationship for the fraternal twins.  The researchers “used quantitative genetic techniques to estimate the genetic, shared environmental, and nonshared environmental effects on people’s compliance with the request for survey participation” according to the paper abstract.

Notwithstanding the power of the right statistical methods, it’s very difficult to rule out plausible rival hypotheses in single generation familial inheritance studies.  I spent one summer during graduate school analyzing data from an adoption study attempting to prove the heritability of schizophrenia.  In addition to the adoption paradigm (that is, looking for differential incidence rates  among the biological and adoptive relatives of the adopted, afflicted individual), we have two types of twin studies–those that compare identical twins reared apart and those that compare sets of identical twins with sets of fraternal twins, as in this case.  Twins reared apart studies got a bad rap as a result of Cyril Burt’s fraudulent data purporting to show the heritability of intelligence.  Comparisons of identical and fraternal twins run up against the fact that having an identical twin is a very different experience from haing a fraternal twin.

I see two potential problems with this study.  First, we can’t rule out differences in interaction between identical twins and fraternal twins as a possible explanation.

The second problem–all genes are expressed at a cellular level in the form of different proteins.  Survey non-response, in contrast, is a specific and high order (far removed from cellular activity) that, really, is unlikely to be governed by a a few small chemical differences.  I believe that anyone making a claim about the heritability of any behavior ought to suggest a plausible cellular mechanism.  It’s also desirable to have some plausible selective pressure that would favor such a genetic predisposition.  Given that survey taking is a relatively recent (in human history) activity, I’m not sure you can make a case for any selective advantage in refusing to participate in surveys.

Maybe–and it’s a big maybe–there’s a selective advantage in some cluster of behaviors–such as cooperation–that just happens to manifest itself in propensity to take surveys.  That might be plausible.  Perhaps the authors offer that explanation in the full paper.  We’ll have to see.

Copyright 2010 by David G. Bakken.  All rights reserved.