Focusing on the “Environment” in Gene-Environment Interactions

Source: ResearchGate

The lead author of the chapter, Cultural Consonance, Consciousness, and Depression: Genetic Moderating Effects on the Psychological Mediators of Culture, is Dr. William W. Dressler, a professor of Anthropology at The University of Alabama. His work on culture and health has taken place in many settings including urban Great Britain, the Southeast U.S., and, in particular, Brazil where he has conducted research for over 30 years. Two of his main collaborators in Brazil are Dr. Mauro C. Balieiro and Dr. José Ernesto dos Santos, the co-authors of this piece.

Source: LinkedIn

Dr. Mauro C. Balieiro is a professor in the Psychology department at The Paulista University (UNIP), a Brazilian university based in São Paulo. His research topics include clinical psychology, psychoanalysis, and depression.


Dr. José Ernesto dos Santos is a professor of Internal Medicine at the University of São Paulo. His skills and expertise include nutrition, metabolism, insulin resistance, and metabolic diseases to name a few.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dressler, Balieiro, and dos Santos (2012) focus on gene-environment interactions with a particular emphasis on the environmental aspect of this interplay. The primary research described in the chapter takes place in urban Brazil and centers around how cultural consonance, a measure of how much people actually embody the prototype of a shared cultural model (described in detail below), interacts differently with individuals who possess variants of a genetic polymorphism that codes for a receptor in the serotonin system. Overall, the researchers found a significant relationship between an individual’s genotype and how strongly cultural consonance impacted depressive symptoms. This research provides preliminary evidence for how  genotype can influence the impact of stressful life experiences on an individual and also demonstrates the importance of looking closely at the “environment” in gene-environment interactions.

Source: The Blue Diamond Gallery

Cultural Consonance

Dr. William Dressler first described the theory of cultural consonance which measures the degree to which individuals live up to the shared model of prototypical beliefs and behaviors within a culture. In order to determine what is prototypical, cultural domain analysis and cultural consensus analysis are employed as the first steps in this research design.

Pile Sorting (Source: Medical Anthropology Wiki)

Cultural domain analysis begins with individuals free listing terms that they associate with an area of life that has importance to them (e.g., lifestyles, social support, family life, national identity). Participants are then asked to sort these responses into piles so that terms that are similar are grouped together. The researcher does not specify the number of piles so it is up to each participant to decide how related the different responses are to one another. Through multidimensional scaling and cluster analysis, researchers can then graphically display how the terms are seen as similar and different.

The next step is to determine how much individuals agree on these groupings through cultural consensus analysis. The basic presumption here is that when individuals respond similarly to a set of questions, they are drawing on a shared knowledge base. By looking at correlations between participant’s responses, the researchers can then infer how much an individual understands the culture (referred to by the researchers as cultural competence).  

The results of the cultural consensus analysis are then used by the researchers to create a measure of cultural consonance for each domain. For example, when examining the cultural domain of family life, participants report how many of the items or behaviors apply to their family that were identified as being important in the cultural consensus analysis. A participant’s cultural consonance in a particular domain is then compared to some type of outcome variable, commonly depression. Research has found that individuals with lower cultural consonance tend to score higher on measures of depression and other negative health outcomes.

Source: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Gene-Environment Interactions

Dressler et al.’s research in Brazil looks at how  a single nucleotide polymorphism in the 2A receptor in the serotonin system (-1438G/A) interacted with cultural consonance in family life to predict depressive symptoms. The researchers found that cultural consonance in family life had a larger effect on individuals with the A/A variant as compared to those with the G/A or G/G variant. These results suggest that negative aspects in one’s social environment may result in some genotypes being more vulnerable to developing depressive symptoms than other genotypes. Importantly, in this situation it is neither the genotype nor the environment that is working in isolation; rather, it is the interaction of gene and environment that is important.

My Thoughts

I was very impressed with how the Dressler et al. chapter presented genetic research in a highly accessible manner. As we have discussed throughout this semester, creating writing that can be understood by a variety of audiences is crucial to interdisciplinary research. For instance, many of us struggled with the Balsters et al. article from earlier in the semester because it was written in a more technical language. If neuroanthropology is going to achieve its goal of uniting fields such as neuroscience and anthropology, it is important to make sure that there are pieces available that skip over some of the more complex aspects and summarize the main points.

With that being said, I would say that one drawback of cultural consonance research is that it can be a bit hard at first to wrap your mind around all of the terms due to the similarities of the words being used. For instance, it took me a little while when I first started reading this research to be able to discern the difference between cultural consensus vs. competence vs. consonance. I find this interesting because the concepts are not actually that hard to grasp and once you do get them sorted out in your mind, you cannot really understand where the confusion initially came from. However, I have noticed that I have to be careful when I am describing these ideas to people who are not familiar with this work because I can see the looks of confusion when I start using the terms too quickly. I am curious, did others who weren’t familiar with the cultural consonance literature find themselves confused with the terminology at first as well?

Source: Pixabay

Discussion Questions

  1.  What is the best way to define culture?
  2.  How can Dressler et al.’s research be used to help individuals with depression?
  3.  What did you think about the limitations of the Dressler et al. study and how could this research be improved?
  4.  How could future research further test the link between “culture, consciousness, neurophysiology, and depression”?
  5.  How does embodiment theory relate to cultural consonance?

13 thoughts on “Focusing on the “Environment” in Gene-Environment Interactions”

  1. With respect to how Dressler’s research can be used to help individuals with depression, I’m not sure if it can. It’s definitely helpful information to know but I’m not sure that it is helpful in getting someone out of depression. For example, let’s say having a car is a part of a “good life” cultural model and not having a car contributes to depression, the solution would be to try to make them more culturally consonant but having them buy a car. However, if someone is too poor to afford a car, how could they buy one? Additionally, being poor is probably not a part of a “good life” cultural model.

  2. I also really enjoyed this article and how it broke down some very complex topics in the realms of both anthropology and neuroscience. I agree that this is key to success and growth within the interdisciplinary field of neuroanthropology. I was unfamiliar with the cultural consonance terminology when I started the article. Although it was a little challenge to keep them straight at first, I feel like a have a good grasp on what each term means, their differences, and their relationship to this study. I definitely see what you mean about the terms being tough to differentiate for people just learning though. I also think this chapter raises interesting concerns regarding practical applications that the article didn’t mention, so I would like to address your question on how this research could be applied to people who suffer from depression. I think that it could be extremely important to understand the genetic influence that may be underlying thought patterns. Using the information that Dressler and his team have presented about different cultural factors differently affecting those with different expressions of the 2A receptor, a therapist may better be able to target thinking patterns and coping mechanisms.

    1. I really enjoyed our in-class activity for cultural consonance! It really opened my eyes to how tedious it can be to try to define culture. Especially when different micro-cultures can be important to distinguish. I wish our discussion of it could have been a little longer! I also wanted to bring up that I don’t know necessarily that it can be as accurate for everyone. Kind of how Monika pointed out in class that she went about the task differently than the “norm”, I think that group is a lot bigger than we might realize. For example, the graduate students on campus probably don’t fit the cultural model that we came up with in class, but I don’t think most of the graduate students have depression or anxiety because of not fitting the models (maybe for other reasons, but not for that). I know that there are tons of microcultures, but is there a better way to control for smaller groups that fall outside the “norm”?

  3. I agree with Monika’s comment, and wonder if ascribing low cultural consonance to a cause or even factor of depression is a false parallel. It seems to me that it does ignore some socioeconomic factors, but also perhaps doesn’t truly speak to the heart of the matter. Lower consonance may be symptom of depression, but I don’t see this applying the other way around. Especially since one of the most distinct and dreadful symptoms of depression is a crushing apathy.

  4. This article reminds me of the common saying that “genes load the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.” It’s not shocking that individuals with lower cultural consonance show greater instances of depression. I imagine this is amplified when someone has the specific genetic predisposition for depression. I’m not sure what this information can do to help the problem of depression but I do think it is a good model to adopt, as it takes into account the individualistic values of each culture.

  5. Since others and I are undertaking research in HBERG related to gene-environment interactions, this chapter is appropriately timed. One point I found particularly important is that a specific genotype does not mean that an individual will experience something like depression, but that he or she might be more vulnerable to the impacts of negative events and circumstances in his or her social environments. Presenting genetic information to the public can be tricky, as I think in the past research has been gene-flated (like neuro-inflation), and so it’s important for us to be clear on the lack of causal language and the limitations.

    Regarding the potential benefits for treating depression, it’s important to keep in mind the bigger picture of the argument that Dressler is making. He’s not saying that people should have more things in order to be less depressed; he’s saying that when an individual is more consonant with the cultural models of his or her social group, than he or she is more “buffered” from social stressors that can contribute to depressive symptoms. Awareness of the areas in which a person doesn’t “fit in” with his or her socio-cultural group could give insight into the direction of social stressors, or areas in which to apply CBT, for example.

    1. Now after discussing in class, I better understand the question of how this work can help people who are depressed. I thought the question was asking specifically how can the concept of cultural consonance apply directly to a depressed individual. However, by looking at a broader perspective and by incorporating another aspect such as DBT or CBT, depressed patients could use these methods to recognize their harmful thought patterns of comparing themselves to the cultural model and learn to modify these thoughts. However, I still think that cultural consonance in and of itself is not useful for a depressed patient. However, when coupled with CBT or DBT, it can be useful to a depressed patients.

    2. In regards to the cultural model needing to be known, or one being aware that they aren’t living up to the model, Dressler showed in a recent paper that consonance predicts health outcomes when controlling for competence. That is, it doesn’t really matter if you know the correct model or not, what’s more important is that you’re living up to it. This suggests that the mechanism of consonance is more of an institutional force rather than a cognitive dissonance. I think this is an important component of understanding consonance, especially as it relates to health outcomes and thinking about possible interventions for mental illness. Also, this suggests that it doesn’t really matter if you don’t consider yourself as “buying in” to the cultural model. If the model is “large” enough and shared by enough people, it can affect you anyway.

  6. I am in Dr. Dressler’s class this semester, Culture Mind and Behavior. We have talked about this study. It is very interesting. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about cultural consonance and the methods leading up to it. I think this study does an excellent job of showing how culture is embodied. People are aware of the cultural model they are living in and are aware of whether they are fulfilling it. Those who are not living up to these cultural standards but have a desire to are so negatively impacted that they experience negative effects as seen by this study involving depressive symptoms. It really shows how culture is embodied to the point of having physiological impacts. Though I do understand what others are saying above me, that lack of consonance could be a symptom of depression rather than a cause. While learning about this in class this did cross my mind. I thought it could be viewed as maybe dismissive of people with depression, as if it is not tracing back to negative mental health but rather ones ability to fit into their culture.

    1. I really love cognitive anthropology to be honest. I have great interest in cultural models, cultural consensus and cultural consonance. The concepts just make a lot of sense to me and give quantitative data to something that has been seemingly impossible in the past. Dr. Dressler’s work on cultural consonance is fascinating. In one of my classes with him, he discussed his work in Brazil in different neighborhoods that are vary in social economic status. Ranging from very poor to richer neighborhoods, he compared depressive symptoms and cultural consonance. He showed that even in poorer neighborhoods, those with greater cultural consonance were just as less likely to have depressive symptoms as those in richer neighborhoods. Cultural consonance is, in my opinion, a very important tool in anthropology that should be widely understood and used.

  7. When it comes to defining culture, I tend to lean towards Ward Goodenough’s definition of what people need to know in order to function properly in a particular society. I feel like this general definition works in most situations. I also think that Dr. Dressler’s work in trying to identify what the people in these societies agree their culture to be is important. As ‘outsiders’, we aren’t in a position to tell people what their culture is.

  8. I enjoyed our in class activity. I thought that it helped me understand the process of studying cultural consonance and provided insight to the fine tuning portions of the procedure that aren’t directly mentioned in articles and proposals. It was eye opening to see the differences in what we all thought the “ideal” UA student to be. It really goes to show that there can be massive differences between the ideal and reality.

  9. The class activity was indeed very helpful on understanding how variable this process can be. However, I found myself wondering how education, both self-taught and institutional, has to do with this, as well as culture as a whole. I wonder how the subjective self lens measures up to the objective educational one.

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