The Master-of-the-Universe Gene

Jonah Lehrer has a new post in the Wall St. Journal on the applications of genetics to finance. For several years, two neuroscientists at Claremont Graduate University have been studying genetics, neurophysiology, and investor behavior. Their latest paper suggests that in the ever-elusive search to balance risk and reward, the sweet spot of maximum investor longevity (i.e., not going bankrupt) was predicted by their dopamine levels.

The paper is a masterpiece of handwaving. It illustrates beautifully how behavior genetics embraces the correlation-suggests-causation approach we like to condemn in those silly, bad old eugenicists from the Progressive Era. Kids, you couldn’t ask for a better example of genetic determinism. Here’s their abstract:

What determines success on Wall Street? This study examined if genes affecting dopamine levels of professional traders were associated with their career tenure. Sixty professional Wall Street traders were genotyped and compared to a control group who did not trade stocks. We found that distinct alleles of the dopamine receptor 4 promoter (DRD4P) and catecholamine-O-methyltransferase (COMT) that affect synaptic dopamine were predominant in traders. These alleles are associated with moderate, rather than very high or very low, levels of synaptic dopamine. The activity of these alleles correlated positively with years spent trading stocks on Wall Street. Differences in personality and trading behavior were also correlated with allelic variants. This evidence suggests there may be a genetic basis for the traits that make one a successful trader.

Of course there’s a genetic basis for it. The trick in finding it is in defining “trait” such that there is a genetic basis for it, and then you find it.

In a typical rhetorical move for overhyped scientistic explanations of fantastically complex behavior, both the scientists and Lehrer suggest a deterministic future by denying it. Let’s take the last three sentences one by one and translate them:

Dr. Zak notes that it’s far too soon to use his genetic assay as a hiring tool—the results still need to be replicated.

I.e., “We have no basis whatsoever for saying this, but…”

Still, it’s possible to imagine a future in which the financial sector requires less oversight because firms have found a way to hire more prudent employees.

“…Wall St. could hire people based on their DNA! If it works–and why shouldn’t it?–we could save so much money! And MAKE so much money!”

Given the massive amounts of money at stake, spending a few hundred dollars on a DNA kit might strike Wall Street as a particularly wise investment.

“What the hell? Go for it, data or no!”

Why so conservative? Since we already have one study–no one likes to do those boring “replication” studies anyway–why not just do away with resumes and job interviews and have would-be stockbrokers simply submit their genome profiles to potential employers? With minimum genetic standards for their mates, in a few generations we could have a race of genetically superior investors who would lead the market ever skyward!

3 thoughts on “The Master-of-the-Universe Gene

  1. I just love reading scientific papers that use the genome as a scapegoat for bad behavior. Not to say that genes don’t play a role in behavior, because I’m quite sure they do. But there are too many social agendas to sort out before you could even begin to point fingers at the genome, let alone two specific alleles. When are we going to stop blaming our genes for…. well, pretty much everything we don’t like? Taxpayers got ripped off by Wall Street traders. That’s terrible. Let’s get to the bottom of what’s really wrong with some of these people, though. It’s not bad choices, greed, or the desire to seize a profitable opportunity. No, no – we’ll chalk it up to the number of COMT and DRD4P alleles (which is, apparently, either too low or too high). Some traders have made poor ethical choices, but it’s not really their fault. It’s just in their genes.

    And yet, as preposterous as it sounds, I’m sure that this idea could be marketed. Since the link between finance and genetics totally flops on evidence-based (not to mention ethical) grounds, I think they should really tackle this from another angle, and just keep all of that DRD4P/COMT hard work under wraps. Assuming that Wall Street believes this causation is real (which it likely isn’t), and that this test works (which it probably won’t), there is some real potential here for convincing an American public that its professional success hinges on its very own genome, and nothing more. There was mention above about ridding the hiring process of resumes. How about taking an environmental approach? I can totally see genetic determinism going green, can’t you? “Go Paperless… No Resumes Required! All we need is a mouth swab, and by golly you’re hired! Get genotyped. Save a tree.” Or, better yet, they could really wrangle in some top candidates by making this an infomercial. “Do YOU have the right amount of synaptic dopamine? Call today, and see if you have what it takes to make the big bucks!”

    When did we get this desperate to explain why person X is just so bad at finance, or medicine, or art, or whatever? Desperate, I think, because we are choosing one very specific correlation and making it a rule of thumb. Finance is more complicated than alleles, receptors, and loose catecholamines, and even if it wasn’t, the aforementioned “race of genetically superior investors” should make anyone shudder.

  2. I rather like the “going green” angle. It’s quite plausible–and yet ridiculous, since doing a DNA profile takes millions of times more resources than producing a sheet of paper.

    And you make a nice point about the seemingly desperate need to explain. It’s not just why person X is so *bad* anymore, though–the article above is part of a trend to explain positive traits as well as negative. That’s a big–and recent–shift.

    You, Gentle Reader, may have what it takes to do historical analysis of contemporary biomedicine. So if you’d just spit into this cup for me,…

  3. Thanks! Though I’m not sure if my synaptic dopamine levels are mediocre enough for the job…

    Good point about the “positive” side of genotyping. This is very true! I suppose it’s natural to want to hire people who are good at what they do. The hope is that resumes and interviewing are carrying that weight right now. Perhaps in a different context (i.e. not one so explicitly involving genetic determinism to weed through applicants), this might just be an admirable endeavor. I’m actually quite obsessed with the genome, in all of its complexity. So, despite my over-the-top rant above, it’s pretty neat to see it getting so much limelight.

    As for the “going green” angle, can you imagine how many plastic pipette tips we would waste doing multiple DNA analyses?! Yikes. Better not publicize that little piece of information.

    Very cool blog!! Thank you for sharing these ideas with us.

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