Time to put the risk gene back in the bottle?

Feb 11 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

British banking chiefs very publicly apologised for their failings yesterday, but if latest research is anything to go by, it may be that they and their banking colleagues couldn't help their excessive risk-taking and it was all in their genes.

Just a day after bankers Sir Tom Mckillop and Sir Fred Goodwin of the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lord Stevenson and Andy Hornby of HBOS were grilled by MPs of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee, evidence has emerged that risk-taking might be in the blood, literally.

The bosses of the two biggest British casualties of the banking crisis told the politicians they apologised "profoundly and unreservedly" for their banks' failures and also agreed that the financial sector's bonus culture needed to be reviewed as a result.

Researchers at Northwestern University, meanwhile, have identified the genes that help to regulate two hormones called dopamine and serotonin, a finding that could eventually predict whether or not a person will be more likely to gamble and take risks.

The findings, published in the journal PLoS ONE, suggest the genes can help to regulate the amount of dopamine and serotonin in the brain.

Both chemicals are known to be important in areas of the brain that help us to decide whether we take or shun risk.

In the study, 65 volunteers were asked to make investment decisions, some high risk and some low risk.

The sample, two thirds women and one third men, had to answer 96 questions about how they would use $30 in real money in a computerised investment game.

Saliva was then taken from each participant, their DNA studied and it was discovered the volunteers who took the most risks displayed more of a particular version of a dopamine-regulating gene as well as more of another gene that regulates serotonin.

Volunteers with a "long" version of a gene related to serotonin, which has been linked to impulsive behaviour, were 28 per cent less willing to take a chance than those with the "short" version.

Similarly, those with a version of a gene related to dopamine were 25 per cent more likely to make a risky investment than those with other versions.

While genes, the researchers argued, could therefore account for as much as a 30 per cent variation in risk-taking, with the rest of the decision around whether you take a risk or not generally coming down to experience and upbringing.

Report author Dr Camelia Kuhnen, assistant professor of finance at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, argued that what this showed that risk-taking on the financial markets might, in part at least, come down to a trader or investor's genetic make-up.

"I wouldn't want to oversell this as a screening device to find good traders," Kuhnen told the website ScientificAmerican.com.

"Even if I have a gene that predisposes me to taking a lot of financial risk, I could go through a stock market crash that will make me less risk-taking," she added.

In an interview with the BBC, ex-City trader Dr John Coates, now an academic at the University of Cambridge, explained: "Our body has an overwhelming effect on our decisions. Genes and hormones can influence us. But they are not the only or the major influencing factors. They do not override our common sense.

"When market bubbles happen and people make stupid decisions it is not just down to one or two people and their genes.

"We are taught how to control our urges. Economic training and risk management is imperative. What is going on in the markets right now is the banks have forgotten these lessons and have let bankers go feral," he added.

It's not the first time a link has been made to genes and risk-taking. Earlier this week, Management-Issues columnist Pauline Crawford argued for the need to have a more gender-balanced, less macho and masculine approach to the workplace.

Last month, a poll of business executives by UK consultancy The Aziz Corporation found nearly nine out of 10 firmly believed a culture that encouraged and rewarded excessive risk had contributed to the financial crisis.

Three quarters had also felt that gender imbalance in the working environment had had a significant effect on the crisis.

Last month, too, scientists at Cambridge University suggested City traders whose ring fingers were much longer than their index fingers tended to make the most money

Long ring fingers, they argued, were linked to a higher exposure to the hormone testosterone in the womb, therefore making a man more "masculine" and prepared to take more risks.

And last autumn, research among Harvard students, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior suggested there was a link between high levels of testosterone in the body and more risky financial behaviour.

In fact, even as far back as 2006 some U.S researchers had concluded that a sense of power often led individuals to greater risk-seeking behaviour.

Cameron Anderson, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University, argued that powerful people tended to view life more through rose-coloured spectacles Ė a good thing when it came to grabbing opportunities others do not spot, but clearly a bad thing when it leads to too much risk taking.