Testing Positive for a Genetic Predisposition to Depression Magnifies Retrospective Memory for Depressive Symptoms

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Objective: Depression, like other mental disorders and health conditions generally, is increasingly construed as genetically based. This research sought to determine whether merely telling people that they have a genetic predisposition to depression can cause them to retroactively remember having experienced it. Method: U.S. adults (men and women) were recruited online to participate (Experiment 1: N = 288; Experiment 2: N = 599). After conducting a test disguised as genetic screening, we randomly assigned some participants to be told that they carried elevated genetic susceptibility to depression, whereas others were told that they did not carry this genetic liability or were told that they carried elevated susceptibility to a different disorder. Participants then rated their experience of depressive symptoms over the prior 2 weeks on a modified version of the Beck Depression Inventory-II. Results: Participants who were told that their genes predisposed them to depression generally reported higher levels of depressive symptomatology over the previous 2 weeks, compared to those who did not receive this feedback. Conclusions: Given the central role of self-report in psychiatric diagnosis, these findings highlight potentially harmful consequences of personalized genetic testing in mental health.

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