Brain-Based Regulation

Jonah Lehrer reports on new research from Steve Sapra and Paul Zak on the neurochemistry of Wall Street success:

Drs. Sapra and Zak began by analyzing the genes of 60 professional traders working in five major Wall Street firms. (They collected the DNA samples in 2008—only three of the firms are still in business.) The scientists focused on a short list of genes that are known to affect the activity of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain.

In recent years, it's become clear that dopamine helps to regulate decisions involving risk and reward, allowing us to experience both the thrill of getting what we want and the pain of losing it all.


It turned out that successful traders—Drs. Zak and Sapra measured success in terms of longevity on Wall Street—tended to hit a sweet spot of dopamine activity; their genes kept them from experiencing either very high or very low levels of the molecule. These prosperous professionals were much more likely to have so-called Goldilocks genes, placing them solidly in the middle of the dopamine distribution.

"The best traders are willing to take risks," Dr. Zak says. "They definitely want to make lots of money. But they're also able to take a long-term perspective and check their impulses. Being able to balance these competing interests seems to require a balanced dopamine system."

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. 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.

The use of this sort of test as a hiring tool is an interesting possibility, as is the idea that the use of such tools might make financial markets more stable. Indeed, if a financial sector full of dopaminergic moderates would in fact have a stabilizing effect, doesn't this suggest the possibility of legally restricting certain types of trading to those with brains that hit Zak and Sapra's sweet-spot? The FAA doesn't let epileptics fly airplanes.

Of course, it may be that financial markets work best with a certain mix of risk-takers and the risk-averse, and that restricting transactions of a certain type or size or whatever to a single, moderate neurological type would hamper the allocative function of financial markets. But the idea that the kind of correlated error that leads to bubbles and crashes is partly a function of the self-selection of certain neuro-/psycho-logical types into big-risk, big-reward trading is a tantalizing possibility.

A similar idea applied to democratic politics seems to me even more plausible. The psychological types that choose to run for office may lead to deliberative bodies that are far from psychologically representative, and the patterns of decision-making typical of politicos might lead reliably to bad results--to predictable overreaction, or uncompromising stalemate, say--that might be avoided in a deliberative body more representative of the population's psychological diversity. I can also imagine a more demand-side version of the hypothesis. Folks in general tend to prefer candidates of certain psychological types. So we get a government full of people with traits highly-correlated with running for and winning office instead of people with traits correlated with effective group deliberation and cooperation.

Another regulation suggests itself: those who wish to run for office are ipso facto disqualified. 

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