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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)?

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soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Lauren Conley

    You bring up valid points. I am a big believer that risk taking is an inherited trait, but what about how our bodies react to stressful situations? You mentioned studies that say testosterone levels affect risk taking when it comes to money, so would it not also be a good idea to studt this whole idea further and consider whether or not other stressors, like of war, could not further increase risk taking behaviors? By that I mean, why not consider things like 911 and the war in Iraq and their influence on American civilians biologically speaking, especially given the ever-increasing footage on places like here at CNN, as an explanation for possible increases in civilian testosterone levels, thus increasing risk taking in the markets?? Because risk taking in the stock markets jumped considerably after both WWI and WWII, too.

    February 11, 2009 at 22:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Vijay Kilambi

    My daughter is five and half years old. She got DPT vaccines (1st, 2nd & 3rd), did not get 4th DPT vaccine because the doctors office forgot about it. She got her 5th DPT booster last month. We are concerned about whether missing the 4th DPT will cause any health issues for my daughter later. Will it create any health problems later? The doctors office says that the 5th DPT booster give is sufficient till my daughter becomes 11 years old and there will not be any issues. Can we still insist the doctor to give the 4th DPT? Is there anything else that can be done to make sure there is not health issue?

    February 12, 2009 at 15:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Kathleen

    Personally I have a very low tolerance for risk, as did both my parents. The video article on CNN today about risks to babies when sleeping with their parents is pertinent to this. If the frequency of a baby sleeping with its mother being smothered to death is one in a million, I could not subject my baby to that risk. It's hard for me to imagine a mother saying to herself that the chances of accidentally killing her baby in her sleep are small so she'll take the risk for her own personal convenience. It's mindboggling to me, but I am aware that people have different levels of tolerance to risk. Sometimes taking a risk is necessary; there is no alternative. However it is simple to put your baby in a crib or bassinette and get your lazy butt out of bed when he/she wakes up in the night.

    February 23, 2009 at 14:09 | Report abuse | Reply

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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.