Ancestry testing is part of a rapidly growing, billion-dollar industry that claims to use DNA to tell people about the parts of the world from which their ancestors originated. We’ve all seen the ads. Send in some DNA and learn your personal, genetic backstory.
But new research from the University of British Columbia (UBC) suggests people who participate in these tests can’t handle the truth.
We tend to cherry-pick parts of our family story
“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,” says Wendy Roth, associate professor in UBC’s department of sociology and the study’s lead author.
“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.”
100 ancestry test subjects interviewed
For the study, researchers interviewed 100 American genetic ancestry test users who were asked questions about their ethnic and racial identities over their lifetime. 18 months later, the participants were interviewed a second time to examine how they made sense of test results and how their identities had changed over time.
One study participant, “Eduardo,” identified as a white Mexican-American before the test, but his genetic ancestry test results reported Native American, Celtic and Jewish ancestries. The researchers found that Eduardo disregarded his Celtic ancestry but embraced his Jewish identity, explaining: “I always looked up to the Jewish people… I thought of them as higher than me.”
Another participant, “Shannon,” was adopted and always believed she had Native American lineage through her birth parents. When her test results revealed no Native American ancestry, she decided the test was incorrect and continued to identify as Native American.
Take test results with a grain of salt
Roth notes there are at least 74 companies that have sold genetic ancestry tests, but she warned that their tests should be taken with a grain of salt.
“There are many ways in which genetic tests that tell you the percentages of your ancestry are misleading and they’re often misunderstood,” says Roth. “Some tests can be useful for helping people track down long-lost relatives who are genetic matches, if they’re lucky. But people who use these tests to determine their race or inform their sense of identity should be aware that this isn’t the right way to think about it.”