We usually think of heredity in relatively simple terms: You’ve got your father’s eyes, your mother’s nose, and likely a few health issues from both. But the things you can inherit from your parents are far broader than your physical appearance or wellbeing. In fact, your genome dictates—or at least heavily influences—many areas of your life. From the music and food you like to your driving skills (or lack thereof), here are 27 ways your life is shaped by your inherited genetic traits.
Now, if you get caught cheating, don’t try to blame it on your genes. But there is some evidence that genetic variations might be a predictor of infidelity. In a 2014 study published in Evolution and Human Behavior, scientists found the way our brains process the hormone vasopressin may partially explain why some people cheat and others don’t. But it’s worth remembering that, just because a person has the gene, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be unfaithful. As with most inherited traits, environment and upbringing count for a lot.
If you toss and turn at bedtime or find yourself waking up hours before your alarm, you might have your mother to thank. Research conducted at the University of Warwick in 2017 revealed that insomnia can be inherited, but it’s only passed down on the maternal side. Children with insomniac mothers don’t sleep as long or as deeply, but paternal insomnia doesn’t seem to have the same effect. In this case, the inheritance is a combination of genetics and environment: The scientists point out that, generally, mothers still spend more time with their children than fathers do, and young children may pick up on their mom’s sleep habits.
3. Poor Driving Skills
In 2009, a team at the University of California, Irvine, found that roughly 3 in 10 people have a gene that makes them worse behind the wheel. A protein, BDNF, assists the brain in linking memory to physical responses, and people with the bad driving gene produce less of it. Not only do these people start off with a lower level of driving ability, they have a hard time correcting their mistakes and learning new motor skills.
As of right now, no peer-reviewed studies exist linking this gene to car crash rates, but researchers say they wouldn’t be surprised if people with the gene were more likely to get in to accidents.
4. Fear of the Dentist
If you’d rather leap off a tall building than take a seat in the dentist’s chair, blame dad. Yes, the transmission of fear from parents to children through socialization has been scientifically proven to include dental visits. In a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Paediatric Dentistry, researchers found that, if one family member experiences severe anxiety about dental work, the rest of the family is vastly more likely to feel the same way. Additionally, children are most likely to take their emotional cues from their fathers, rather than their mothers, when it comes to visiting the dentist.
5. Pain Tolerance
Pain is deviously difficult to measure and compare between individuals. What sends one person into tears may be barely noticeable to another, and the difference is at least partly genetic, according to research presented at the American Association of Neurology’s annual meeting in 2014. For their research, scientists isolated four particular genes that affect the way a person perceives pain. This is exciting news for people with chronic pain, as it could lead to a deeper understanding of the condition—and better ways to treat it.
6. Facial Expressions
You probably know that traits like eye color, hair color, and earlobe shape are genetically inherited. However, according to the American Psychological Association, what you do with those features is also genetically determined. That’s right: You can thank mom and pop for your facial expressions. As Scientific American reported in 2006, some people who were born blind—or were among a pair of siblings separated at birth—made similar facial expressions as their parents and other relatives despite never having learned them by sight. (Fun fact: Charles Darwin noticed the phenom a century ago.)
7. How You Feel About Exercise
Some lucky folks experience a “runner’s high” during or after exercise, which is caused by production of dopamine in the brain. However, as revealed in a 2015 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, roughly a quarter of the population has a genetic trait that slows the production or reabsorption of exercise-related dopamine, making working out an unrewarding task.
These people can find other ways to derive pleasure from exercise by doing activities they enjoy, like swimming, rock climbing, or road biking—it just may be a bit more difficult to find biological motivation.
8. Response to Caffeine
Is there a drug as entwined with American culture as caffeine? Some people just can’t start their day without a cup of joe (or four). Still, others just find it makes them feel jittery and anxious. In fact, according to a 2010 study in Psychopharmacology, scientists believe that genetics account for somewhere between 36 percent and 58 percent of the differences in the way people metabolize caffeine. The way your brain processes the chemicals adenosine and dopamine determines whether you’ll experience insomnia, anxiety, or, in the worst case, withdrawal symptoms.
Having the right variant of the 5HT2A serotonin-receptor gene might make you more popular—at least, if you’re a college-age male. People with the so-called “G variant” of this gene tend to be impulsive and break more rules, making them more popular with their peers. In 2009, researchers at Michigan State University studied this phenomenon by having young men plan and throw parties. According to the partygoers, the men with the G variant were considered more popular. Whether this applies to other demographics in other environments (for example, where rule-breaking is not desirable) has yet to be seen.
For some people, procrastination feels as natural as eating, breathing, and sleeping—and it’s something they may have picked up from mom and dad. According to a 2014 study published in Psychological Science, nearly half of procrastination tendencies can be chalked up to genetics. What’s more, according to a 2018 study also published in Psychological Science, those with a larger amygdala—the brain’s emotional processing center, and something that by definition is passed down from your folks—were more likely to procrastinate.
11. How Fast You Age
Age very well may be “just a number,” but that doesn’t mean the number is always accurate. As it turns out, telomeres—that’s the part of DNA on the tip of each chromosome—could dictate how old we look. According to a 2010 study published in Nature Genetics, in which scientists analyzed more than half a million telomeres, those with shorter tips looked, on average, three or four years older than those with normal-length tips.
12. Your Sweet Tooth
When it comes to deciding between candy and chocolate or chips and French fries, do you always pick the sweet option? If so, you likely inherited this trait from your parents. In 2018, Danish researchers found that people with a variation of the gene FGF21 have a practically incurable, insatiable sweet tooth. They experience cravings and eat more sugar than other people, but they also tend to have less body fat. Sure, that sounds fantastic, but the news isn’t all good: People with this genetic sweet tooth are reportedly more prone to high blood pressure.
13. Liking Bitter Foods
Brussels sprouts, kale, hoppy beers, and dark chocolate all have a divisive bitterness to them. Chances are, you either love ’em or you hate ’em. If you’re in the first camp, you may have a variation of the taste receptor gene TAS2R38 that makes your taste buds less sensitive to bitterness. The minority of the population—about a quarter, according to a report from NPR—has the version of TAS2R38 that makes them more sensitive to bitterness.
14. Level of Risk Aversion
Skiing and snowboarding can be risky sports—one wrong move and you could wind up with a concussion, a broken bone, or worse. But the people who do them may be genetically predisposed to taking those risks.
A 2012 study of 500 skiers and snowboarders, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science, showed that a particular genetic variation served as a predictor for risky downhill behavior. People with this variation were more likely to speed down steep slopes (and, presumably, pop off a couple of 360ºs) than those without it. What’s more, scientists think such folks might not process dopamine as efficiently as others, meaning that they need to take more risks to feel the same level of enjoyment. Truly radical.
It turns out that a sunny outlook on life may be an inherited trait. According to a 2011 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences, the gene that codes for oxytocin receptors—the cells in your brain that respond to the “love hormone”—displays some definite variations in people who are optimistic and have high self-esteem. (These people also reported feeling highly in control of their own lives.) Still, it must be noted that there’s rarely a 100 percent correlation between a single gene and a complex personality trait, so this is just one piece of the personality puzzle.
According to the same 2011 Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences study, those oxytocin receptors that help determine a person’s optimism also help determine another positive personality trait: empathy.
These people have a variant of three particular genes that’s a good predictor for altruism, prosocial behavior, and a greater ability to cope with stress. The good news is that a little more than half the population (51.5 percent) has this variation!
17. Sneezing at the Sun
Ever looked at the sun and sneezed? You might be suffering from Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helioopthalmic Outburst (ACHOO) Syndrome without even realizing it! Don’t worry, though: It’s a relatively benign condition—the only symptom is sneezing when you encounter bright light, particularly sunlight. Though scientists still haven’t quite figured out what causes it, as revealed in a 2012 study in Medical Genetics Summaries, they surmise that the likelihood of “photic sneezing” is genetically inherited. If one of your parents sneezes when they step out into the sun, the hypothesis goes, then you have a 50-percent chance of inheriting this behavior.
18. The Ability to Trust Others
People who are distrustful are usually that way because of environmental factors—after all, if you’ve been badly hurt in the past, you’re less likely to open yourself up again. However, the disposition to be trusting may be more strongly linked to biology. A 2017 study out of University of Arizona revealed that identical twins showed similar levels of trust when compared with non-identical twins, implying that the difference is likely genetic.
19. Being a Morning Person
You know 23andMe for offering DNA testing kits that can reveal your ancestry (and other traits). Recently, though, with their Everest-sized mountain of data, they’ve begun conducting some proprietary research, too. In a 2016 paper published in Nature Communications, scientists—who combed over the genes of nearly 90,000 individuals—determined that your DNA can dictate whether you’re a lark or a night owl. Your circadian rhythm, or “body clock,” essentially tells your body when you’re most alert—and when you’re not. Researchers have pinpointed 15 genetic variants that can predict where, exactly, you fall on the morning-to-evening spectrum.
Everybody sweats, but about 5 percent of the population sweats excessively. This condition is called hyperhidrosis, and, while it’s not dangerous, sufferers can find it embarrassing. According to the International Hyperhidrosis Society, profuse perspiration runs in the family. In fact, even where you sweat may be genetically inherited. For example, people who sweat from the hands and feet are also likely to sweat excessively from their underarms, while people who sweat from the face and chest are also likely to sweat from the back.
21. Musical Ability
If you’ve ever been to karaoke night at a local bar, you’ll know that some people have a much greater aptitude for music than others. While environmental factors—the ability to pay for and take lessons, for example—are definitely important, musical ability has a strong genetic influence. According to 2014 research published in Frontiers in Psychology, perfect pitch and tone deafness run in families, and some people gain the ability to pick out pitch, rhythm, and sound patterns much faster than others. You’d better hope that the next person up to the microphone has the right variation of chromosome 4q!
22. Musical Taste
In addition to musical ability, your genes might also help determine what kind of music you like. A 2009 study conducted by technology company Nokia, in partnership with Kings’ College London, showed that genetic influence accounted for about 50 percent of musical tastes. This relationship was strongest for pop, classical, and hip-hop music, but nearly nonexistent for country and folk music. In other words, folks who love Mozart inherited it from mom and pop, while those who can’t get enough Kenny Chesney learnedit from mom and pop. (Interestingly, the influence of genetics on musical taste appeared to decrease as the subjects aged.)
23. Diabetes Risk (in Men)
You don’t need us to tell you that the Western diet—lots of butter, red meat, and pre-packaged or processed foods—isn’t exactly good for you. But, according to a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the Western diet, when combined with at-risk “genetic predisposition,” can heighten the likelihood of developing type-2 diabetes. Oh, and sorry, fellas: The researchers found this only applies to men.
24. Aggression (in Toddlers)
When infants become toddlers, many parents begin to wonder what happened to their sweet little child. The stage at which toddlers become more capable of exploring the world and exerting their will is often called the “terrible twos,” and it can sometimes be accompanied by aggressive behaviors: kicking, biting, hitting, and fighting. According 2014 research out of the Université de Montréal, aggression is much better predicted by genetic factors than parenting techniques. So even the best parents may occasionally get kicked, bitten, and hit. The good news is that most children grow out of this phase, particularly if parents respond to this aggression with care.
It can be difficult to separate the influence of genetics and the environment when it comes to athleticism. Did Vlad Guerrera, Jr. win 2019’s Home Run Derby because he inherited Vlad Guerrera, Sr.’s genes—or because dad taught him how to hit the baseball?
The true question is not whether athletic ability is a genetically-inherited trait, but exactly how much is due to genetics and how much is a product of environment. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, researchers believe that anywhere from 30 percent to 80 percent of athleticism is due to genetic factors. Even the best marathon runners are slightly different on a genetic level from short-distance speed runners.
Intelligence is a tricky subject, and scientists have been debating the best way to measure it for centuries. However, what we do know is that genetics plays a major role, according to Robert Plomin, deputy director of the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Center at King’s College London.
According to his 2016 article in Scientific American, studies of identical twins show that about 50 percent of differences in intelligence can be chalked up to genetics (when intelligence is defined as general cognitive ability). The rest is inherited in the environmental sense—meaning smart parents tend to teach their children habits and skills that will increase their cognitive abilities.
27. That Ability to Smell Odorous Urine
Asparagus is an excellent side dish for a healthy dinner, but some people avoid it for a very specific reason: As the human body digests asparagus, it produces sulfur-containing compounds that make the eater’s urine smell not so great. However, somewhere between 20 percent and 40 percent of the population can’t smell these compounds. It’s not that their pee doesn’t smell funky—it’s just that their noses can’t detect the odor. According to a 2010 study published in PLOS Genetics (also conducted by 23andMe), just a single genetic mutation frees these people from smelling the bad stuff. Will genetic therapy ever be available for the rest of us? Only time will tell.