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Choice of Identity

People who take genetic ancestry tests choose which results they incorporate into their sense of ethnic or racial identity, a new study appearing in the American Journal of Sociology has found.

A pair of researchers from the University of British Columbia interviewed 100 US adults who identified as white, black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, or Native American before taking a genetic ancestry test.

"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 lead author Wendy Roth from UBC in a statement. "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."

For instance, Roth and her colleague Biorn Ivemark recount the experience of a woman they call Shannon who was adopted but had been told she had a white and Native American background. Her test results, though, indicated no Native ancestry, a finding she discounted. Another test-taker, Eduardo, was white Mexican American and his testing results showed Native American, Celtic, and Jewish ancestry, and he embraced his newfound Jewish identity, though not Celtic, as he tells the researchers that he had looked up to his Jewish friends and neighbors.