Are Ancestry Test Results Coloured by Biases?

Genetic tests purport to enlighten users about their roots, but what if test-takers are just cherry-picking the results?

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Genetic ancestry testing is a rapidly growing, billion-dollar industry that is sold as a scientific way of discovering your ancestral roots, but the results can differ depending on the company used and how each user interprets the results.

Since the decoding of the human genome, over four million people have taken a genetic ancestry test. But despite the allure of scientific authority, Wendy Roth, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, warns that ancestry test results are misleading and often misunderstood.

In fact, less than 0.001% of human genetic sequences are based on varied geographic ancestry. And what’s more, test samples are just compared to others in a company’s database, not any standardized objective measure of ancestral grouping.

Roth and her colleagues are studying genetic ancestry testing and how it changes racial identities. Their findings suggest that rather than viewing test results as proof of their ancestry, test-takers pick and choose the results they want to adopt to satisfy two needs: distinctiveness and belonging.

“People often buy these genetic ancestry tests because they’re looking for a sense of belonging or to confirm a story that’s been passed down in their family,” explains Roth. “But if the test results don’t support what they want to believe, we found that people will often ignore the results or criticize them. We tend to cherry-pick the parts of our family story that we like most and want to emphasize.”

The study, which draws on in-depth interviews with 100 test-takers about their self-reported pre- and post-test ethnic and racial identities, found that what we embrace and ignore differs in test-takers from different backgrounds. White test-takers, especially those with no substantial attachment to their origins, tend to use the results to embellish their existing racial identity with something ‘less boring’.

On the other hand, non-white test-takers were less interested in adopting the results, possibly because they had assumed mixed racial ancestry, or because they feel sufficient differentiation and inclusion already.

It’s ironic that white test-takers are most likely to incorporate some component of the results into their personal identity. It’s as if the racial privilege that makes ‘whiteness’ invisible pushes test-users to aspire to be something else: something perceived as more distinctive with a deeper sense of belonging.

This might suggest a growing acceptance, and even desirability, of multi-raciality, but Roth warns that there are also negative connotations. Enabling test-takers to incorporate symbolic racial identities without cost or consequence can reinforce a belief that race is inconsequential in today’s world – something that those with lived experience as a visible minority know is far from true.

Roth’s advice? More than 60% of those studied said the test results did not affect their identity. Between that, misleading and selective interpretation of results, genetic ancestry test results should be taken with a pinch of salt.

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Amy Amy Noise is a science communicator who is fascinated by how and why the world works. Always learning, she is passionate about science and sharing it with the world to improve and protect our health, society and environment. Amy earned her BSc (biology and science communication) at the University of Manchester, and MSc (nutrition science and policy) at King’s College London, UK. She tweets sporadically @any_noise