Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Debt—it’s Not My Fault. It’s In My Genes

Isn’t it nice when we don’t have to take responsibility for our behavior? It’s especially comforting when some scientific study proves what we’ve thought all along—that we have no control over our actions.

Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, of the London School of Economics, and James Fowler, of the University of California, San Diego conducted a study on the correlation between genes and human behavior. During this time they have connected the gene known as MAOA with financial decision making. Okay to be fair we can’t put all the blame on this gene. Human behavior is much more complex than that. However, the MAOA gene encodes an enzyme that degrades neurotransmitters in parts of the brain that regulate impulsiveness and cognitive ability. Some people have versions of the gene that are less efficient than others. That low-efficiency have been linked to impulsivity, and addictive behavior—things that aren't so good for your finances.

To further connect the MAOA gene to debt the researchers looked at a genetic database of more than 2,500 U.S. 18- to 26-year-olds who have been tracked since high school in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which looks at the health-related behavior of young people and follows them into adulthood. They found that the group with low-efficiency MAOA reported a higher incidence of credit card debt.

So there you have it, blame it on the genes. Not so fast. The results of the study have yet to be replicated and nearly half of the 2,500 people had the low-efficiency MAOA. And if we assume that this is representative sample of the entire U.S. population than about 1 of every 2 of us have the same low-efficiency. It’s true that a lot of us carry debt, but there is still much to learn about nature vs. nuture. So I’d say it’s a rather big dose of denial to claim that debt is out of our control.

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