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!