February 11th, 2009
12:23 PM ET

Is risk taking in our genes?

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

With the economy being in such sad shape, it seems that everyone is looking for someone or something to blame. So, what the heck - let me add a medical perspective to the mix. Could it be in our genes? After all, genes are DNA segments that help determine a particular characteristic. And, researchers at Northwestern University have found two of these genes that regulate the “feel-good” neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine that might cause us to take risks. (watch video)

The idea is that if you have a variant of one of these genes, taking high risks, might allow these feel-good hormones to stick around a little longer in the brain causing a “natural high.” In other words, in a group of people out there, taking risks feels good, making them more inclined to do it over and over again, no matter the state of the market.

There is no question– a lot of variables affect our willingness to do something risky. Certainly our cultural upbringings, religious beliefs, marital status all play a role. Even something known as “prediction addiction,” influences the way we invest. It turns out our brains are hard-wired to look for patterns, and that is especially true when it comes to the stock market.

Quarter after quarter, if we see the same pattern of return from a stock, we get used to that. We like being able to predict what will happen next. If there is an unexpected change in return, even if it is minor, it can send the market into a wild fluctuation, simply because our brains were surprised and we reacted wildly.

As much as I looked, I didn’t find any great studies looking at innate differences between men and women when it comes to investing. Although a study out of Harvard released last year did find the higher the testosterone level, the more willing those individuals were to take financial risks. Possible interesting lesson: Let women or older men handle the financial decision making for a while…

So, are you a risk taker? Has your willingness to take risks gone down with the recent changes in the market? Or has your willingness gone up (after all, there are still people cashing in)?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.