The social psychology of epigenetics: impacts on health behaviour motivation, stigma and policy support
: (Alternative Format Thesis)

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Epigenetics, the study of mechanisms that influence gene expression, has been described as a crucial link by which our environments and lifestyles can influence health outcomes. Research has indicated that early life risk factors can epigenetically ‘program’ a child’s later risk of ill health, but also that the individual’s own lifestyle in adulthood can influence epigenetics and health, modifying this risk. Furthermore, it has recently become possible to track biological ageing, using what has been termed ‘the epigenetic clock’. The research presented in this thesis is the first to examine the effect of epigenetic accounts of health on stigma, policy support and health behaviour motivation. Previous research has drawn upon attribution theory to suggest a key role of control. Namely, that health outcomes attributed to uncontrollable causes (e.g., genetics) are associated with reduced blame towards individuals and increased assistive policy support, but also increased belief in health outcomes as fixed and reduced health behaviour motivation, compared to health outcomes attributed to controllable causes (e.g., behaviour). By applying attribution theory to epigenetics, this thesis explores whether the same trade-offs of blame, policy support and health behaviour motivation are observed when communicating early life and adult accounts of epigenetic ageing and health. To achieve this, this mixed methods thesis includes online experiments communicating epigenetic aetiologies of obesity (Study 1), and early life vs. adult accounts of epigenetic ageing (Study 2), development and validation of an Epigenetic Belief Scale (Study 3), and an experiment communicating individual vs. societal epigenetic accounts of parenting and children’s epigenetic age (Study 4). Lastly, a thematic analysis of interviews with individuals who have undertaken direct-to-consumer epigenetic testing is presented, which aimed to explore motivations for testing, sense-making of results and subsequent health behaviour change (Study 5). Collectively, my findings indicate that communicating epigenetics is associated with trade-offs. Adult malleability accounts are interpreted as high-control causal accounts, and may promote health behaviour motivation, however, may also predict blame and potentially stigma, dependent on context. Early life programming accounts are understood as low-control causal accounts when applied to individual health, and predict increased assistive policy support (context-dependent), and low blame and stigma. However, blame and stigma appear to be transferred to powerful others in the individual’s life, and early life programming accounts predict increases in parent blame and stigma, especially towards mothers. These findings indicate the likely psychosocial impacts of communicating epigenetics in health contexts, and implications for researchers and healthcare practitioners are discussed.
Date of Award23 Mar 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SponsorsEconomic and Social Research Council
SupervisorMitch Callan (Supervisor), Tim Kurz (Supervisor), Julie Barnett (Supervisor) & Adele Murrell (Supervisor)

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