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Generalist genes and specialist environments for adolescent internalizing and externalizing problems: A test of severity and directionality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 October 2020

Kristine Marceau*
Human Development and Family Studies, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA
Jenae Neiderhiser
Human Development and Family Studies, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA
Author for Correspondence: Kristine Marceau, 225 Hanley Hall, 1202 W. State Street, West Lafayette, IN47907; E-mail:


The generalist genes specialist environment model, when applied to developmental psychopathology, predicts that genetic influences should explain variance that is shared across internalizing and externalizing problems, whereas environmental influences should explain variance that distinguishes the two overarching problem types. The present study is a direct test of this hypothesis, leveraging a sample of 708 twins and siblings (aged 10–18 years, 93% White) from the United States. Measures of severity of symptoms, regardless of type, and of directionality of symptoms – whether the adolescent tended to exhibit more externalizing or internalizing problems – were subjected to genetic (A), shared environmental (C), and nonshared environmental (E) (ACE) variance decompositions. As expected, severity of problems was under substantial genetic influence, but there were also significant shared and nonshared environmental influences. Contrary to the generalist genes specialist environment model, directionality of problem type was also under considerable genetic influence, with modest nonshared environmental influence. Findings corroborate existing evidence from other designs highlighting the role of familial influences (including generalist genes) in comorbidity of adolescent internalizing and externalizing problems, but suggest that the specialist environments hypothesis may not be the key factor in distinguishing problem type.

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© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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