It’s No Surprise That Genetic Data Alone Doesn’t Change Behavior

Jennifer Lovejoy, Arivale Chief Translational Science Officer, PhD
Jennifer Lovejoy
Arivale Chief Translational Science Officer, PhD

A review article that was published this month has generated conversation around the value of genetic testing for disease risk. In the review, a group of British researchers looked at 18 studies that reported on the impact of communicating genetic risk on behavioral outcomes such as diet, physical activity, or smoking cessation. The researchers concluded that communicating genetic risk doesn’t change lifestyle behavior.

This result shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s actually quite well known that simply providing data doesn’t change behavior. It doesn’t matter whether it’s genetic data, laboratory data, or even lifestyle data (e.g. from wearable trackers) nor does it matter how much data you provide someone—in the end, it’s just data and not particularly motivating for most people.

Changing behavior is a difficult and complex proposition. There are many reasons why people don’t change behavior. They might not have the necessary skills or a supportive environment. They might also have strongly entrenched habits or addictions (e.g. tobacco) or not truly understand the benefits of changing their behavior. While arguably providing genetic data could provide some insight into potential benefits of behavior change, it certainly doesn’t do anything to address the multitude of other reasons why we tend to stay stuck in our less-than-healthy habits.

This is why Arivale emphasizes that personalized coaching has to go hand in hand with personalized data for behavior change to happen. With a skilled coach to educate, support, prioritize recommendations and hold us accountable, behavior change informed by systems-based data is possible.

In ISB’s study the Hundred Person Wellness Project—which provided the groundwork for Arivale—we observed that people who had data about potential risks but did not engage with their coach were less likely to have improved certain biomarkers at their later blood draws. Again, data alone doesn’t drive behavior.

What is a bit surprising, however, is the media interpretation of the British study. Some scientists and medical media sources are interpreting the results of this study to mean that evidence doesn’t support widespread genetic testing, or even that the promise of personalized medicine may be hard to fulfill. In fact, the review doesn’t really address these points. Personalized medicine involves not only personalized data but personalized care—by a trusted health advisor who knows about you as a person. We continue to see on a daily basis that providing data in the context of behavioral coaching does change behavior—and can clearly lead to optimized wellness.