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Tiny genetic differences add up to big behavioral effects
Many thousands of different genetic variants are responsible for complex behavior.
- Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) allow us to correlate genetic differences with behavioral traits.
- There is no single gene that explains behavior; rather, behavior arises from the complex interaction of many different genes, each of which only plays a small role.
- Society must be cautious as we learn more about behavioral genetics.
Life flourishes with diversity, as diversity gives nature something to choose from, providing flexibility to adapt to change. Variation between humans seems endless, both in appearance and in behavior. Variation between humans is largely due to our flexible nature that allows us to adapt to a wide variety of potential life trajectories, and partly due to set dimensions of variation in our biological make-up carefully molded by the hands of time.
Genome-wide association studies
Four billion years of natural selection crafted the refined machinery we all share — encoded in most of our DNA — as well as carefully selected room for variation — encoded in a minority of DNA differences. If the 3.2 billion nucleotides in our DNA would fit into a 300-page book, the differences between two random people would barely add up to two pages. Many decades of research in twins and family members suggest that considerable portions of differences in human behavior are associated with some of the tiny differences within those two pages.
If the 3.2 billion nucleotides in our DNA would fit into a 300-page book, the differences between two random people would barely add up to two pages.
It is hard to uncover the evolutionary stories behind these differences, but it would probably help to first find out how these genetic differences exactly give rise to the diversity in our behavioral repertoire. Recent advances in genetics research allow us to link specific DNA nucleotides on those two pages to complex behavioral outcomes. Studies that link genetic variation on a molecular level with complex traits are called genome-wide association studies (GWAS). In a GWAS, millions of single DNA nucleotides are tested one by one in order to quantify their relationship with the most complex of human traits, including behavior.
Professor Karin Verweij and I recently published an article in Nature Human Behavior, in which we review what we have learned so far from GWAS on human behavior and what steps we need to take to learn more. Here, I will summarize some highlights from our article and reflect on their societal relevance.
Many genes with tiny effects
In the last decade or so, we have been able to link thousands of genetic variants to human behavioral traits, including personality, education, cognition, sexuality, and mental health. The effects of these genetic variants on behavior are, individually, very weak. Twin and family studies have estimated that, on average, about half of the individual differences in behavioral outcomes are due to genetic differences, which would mean that tens of thousands of genetic variants would be needed to account for these heritability estimates.
The tiny effects of individual genetic variants are hard to estimate, unless unusually large groups are studied. In a typical GWAS, we study millions of DNA variants from hundreds of thousands of individuals. The sum of these small effects can be used to predict people's genetic risk for all kinds of outcomes. The predictive power of DNA is increasing as our studies grow, but we still understand very little about the nature of these predictions.
There are probably no genes that directly influence complex behavioral outcomes. Instead, the many small genetic effects travel through many cascades of mostly unknown biological processes that react to and influence the physical and social environments that people live in.
Before we let DNA prediction reach the clinic or other uses with unpredictable ramifications, such as embryo selection or mate selection, it is important that we first invest in better understanding the nature of the relationship between genetic differences and behavioral outcomes.
Everything is connected
The physical machinery that carries our emergent minds and behaviors consists of many intricate and interconnected systems. Modifying one part will affect multiple other outcomes. This is visible at the level of genes: genetic effects are often shared between different behavioral outcomes in a systematic way. Genes that increase the chances of getting addicted to alcohol tend to increase the risk of feeling lonely. Genes that increase the risk for autism increase the chances of a higher IQ. Genes that increase the risk for anorexia increase the chances of getting a higher education.
These shared genetic effects are widespread among behavioral outcomes. The genetic effects we estimate reflect a patchwork of multiple underlying behavioral outcomes. While many are eager to use these genetic effects to dive into the biology of behavior, we argue that we first need to put more effort into dissecting these genetic effects into their subcomponents.
For educational attainment, for example, we recently split up the part of the genetic effects associated with IQ, which makes up 43 percent of genetic effects on educational attainment, and a "non-IQ" part, making up the remaining 57 percent. We are not sure yet what that remaining 57 percent exactly entails, but we do see that those genes increase the risk for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. This could be because people with a higher genetic risk for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder tend to be more creative and more open to new experiences.
These shared genetic effects teach us a lot about the genetic architecture of human behavior and also make us realize that it is difficult to select for one trait without also influencing many others. This is a strong argument against using DNA prediction to influence your offspring's DNA through embryo selection, a service that, unfortunately, some companies have already started to offer.
Behavioral genetics is controversial
The highest portion of shared genetic effects was observed between educational attainment and income. These associations have been reported in separate publications, and the genetic effect on each is roughly the same. Both publications received much attention in the media and on social media. While for educational attainment, the reactions were mostly positive, the publication on genetic effects on income was met mostly with criticism.
These opposite reactions to the same genetic signal might have to do with income being more closely associated in people's minds with social inequalities. Trying to explain social inequalities in terms of something that people are born with may instill the fear that science is being misused to justify the position of marginalized groups. Instead, these molecular genetic effects are helping to elucidate an inherent unfairness in the way we organize our societies.
A closer look at these genetic effects shows that they contain substantial amounts of environmental influences. Our initial studies had trouble separating the two because they are highly correlated. When your genes predispose you to a higher education, that means that your parents also carry those genes and are thus more likely to also have a higher education, giving them better resources (money) to nurture you with a better environment. If you are born with genes that make it easier for you to learn, it will also increase the chances that you will move to a richer neighborhood with healthier living circumstances. These "double advantages" and "double disadvantages" make us mistake the impact of systematic social disadvantages for genetic effects, inflating heritability estimates.
These gene-environment correlations were recently detected studying DNA from people that were exclusively of white European origin. Systematic differences in environmental influences are likely much worse between different ethnic groups, casting more doubts on white supremacists' claims who love to use these inflated heritability estimates to support their genetic explanations for socio-economic group differences.
After two decades of reading out human genomes, we are still only scratching their surface. We are just starting to dissect only a fraction of the total heritability that we are currently able to capture with molecular genetic data. Large parts of humanity are still underrepresented in our measurements, which makes it difficult to make more general claims. We outline in more detail in our Nature Human Behavior paper which steps we need to take in our methods and data collection strategies to better understand the differences in our DNA.
Abdel Abdellaoui & Karin J.H. Verweij (2021). Dissecting polygenic signals from genome-wide association studies on human behavior. Nature Human Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01110-y
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"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
A socially minded franchise model makes money while improving society.
- A social enterprise in California makes their franchises affordable with low interest loans and guaranteed salaries.
- The loans are backed by charitable foundations.
- If scaled up, the model could support tens of thousands of entrepreneurs who are currently financially incapable of entering franchise agreements.
Social responsibility is becoming a major focus of many businesses. While turning a profit is always the ultimate goal — nobody can eat good intentions, after all — having a positive impact on society is becoming an equally important goal.
A restaurant chain in California, already focused on providing healthy food at a competitive cost, is testing a new way to create more entrepreneurs. Specifically, it is working with charitable foundations to provide business opportunities to those who normally would not have access.
When a company wants to expand without paying all of the upfront costs itself or taking on the entire risk of operating in a new market, it can enter into a franchise agreement with an entrepreneur. In exchange for a share of the profits (as well as some fees and adherence to certain quality standards), the entrepreneur — now a franchisee — can open their own branch of a larger brand. The entrepreneur enjoys the benefits of owning a business, while the brand owner can cash in on intellectual property.
This model is wildly successful. There is a reason you can find fast food joints like McDonald's everywhere from Times Square to Prague (next to the Museum of Communism, no less). According to the International Franchise Association, there were more than 733,000 franchised business establishments in the United States in 2018, accounting for nearly 3 percent of GDP.
The franchise model — in which a local agent keeps some earnings while handing over a portion to a central authority — isn't new. Indeed, variations have been around since the Middle Ages, though it only took off after WWII. Franchising is now a recognized system in many countries and is used in all manner of industries, including restaurants, pet supply stores, automotive repair shops, hotels, and even senior care.
The Catch-22: you have to spend money to make money
The biggest problem with franchising is the high cost of becoming a franchisee.
While the costs vary, opening a restaurant as a franchisee can easily cost $500,000. A franchise car repair shop can require $250,000, and opening a hotel under a franchise's banner can set a person back millions. In some cases, the franchiser also will set a minimum net worth requirement or insist that the money that pays their fees not be borrowed. Even if a person can find a way around that, most new businesses do not turn a profit for quite some time after opening. These limitations essentially rule out all but the wealthy from becoming a franchisee.
As a result, there are some social enterprises that are looking to make franchising more accessible to the less affluent.
As a business that hopes to rapidly expand, they looked to franchising. However, the idea of seeking out a bunch of rich people to support a business like theirs struck CEO Sam Polk as out of step with its vision. So, the company came up with a better idea.
Their Social Equity Franchise Program helps tenured Everytable employees open their own franchise locations through free training and assistance in securing low interest loans to finance the store. To help the entrepreneurs survive the difficult early years, participants in the program are assured an income of $40,000 in their first three years of operations. Repayments on the loans do not begin until after the business is turning a profit.
The capital for all these low interest loans comes from a number of foundations such as the California Wellness Foundation (Cal Wellness). Foundations like these are required to give away a small portion of their endowments every year on causes aligned with their missions. However, most of the rest of it is simply invested in the stock market to assure the endowment continues to exist.
People like Cal Wellness CEO Judy Belk have begun to invest that money elsewhere, like in loans to provide the money needed to open an Everytable franchise. As she explained to FreeThink:
"Cal Wellness and many other foundations are saying, 'I think we can do a little better with that [money]. Why not use that capital to invest in the communities that we're supposed to serve?'"
In the end, Everytable gets a new restaurant that expands the brand, foundations get returns on their investment, and the franchisee gets an opportunity that they likely never would have had without the program.
Expanding the Everytable model
If even a small share of the $2 trillion foundations in the U.S. have are invested into this sort of social cause, tens of thousands of loans could be given to those less affluent people who are looking to start a business. While this model likely would lower returns to institutional investors like charities, they could enjoy more tangible results in the communities they exist to serve. According to a report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, local entrepreneurship increases income and employment and decreases poverty.
At the individual level, this would help a lot of people who otherwise never would be able to seriously consider going into business for themselves. By a number of measures, business owners make more than wage workers and can also claim ownership of the assets that comprise the business. Beyond that, many small business owners enjoy the non-financial benefits of their position as well, including the independence and autonomy that often come with business ownership.
When working optimally, good business is good for society.
Fintech companies are using elements of video games to make personal finance more fun. But does it work, and what are the risks?
- Gamification is the process of incorporating elements of video games into a business, organization, or system, with the goal of boosting engagement or performance.
- Gamified personal finance apps aim to help people make better financial decisions, often by redirecting destructive financial behaviors (like playing the lottery) toward positive outcomes.
- Still, gamification has its risks, and scientists are still working to understand how gamification affects our financial behavior.
- YouTube www.youtube.com
The human brain is a pretty lazy organ. Although it's capable of remarkable ingenuity, it's also responsible for nudging us into bad behavioral patterns, such as being impulsive or avoiding difficult but important decisions. These kinds of short-sighted behaviors can hurt our finances.
However, they don't hurt the video game industry. In 2020, video games generated more than $179 billion in revenue, making the industry more valuable than sports and movies combined. A 2021 report from Limelight Network found that gamers worldwide spend an average of 8 hours and 27 minutes per week playing video games.
Good at gaming, bad at saving
It's not necessarily bad that Americans spend millions of dollars and hours on video games. But consider another set of statistics: 25 percent of Americans have no retirement savings at all, while roughly half are either living "on the edge" or "paycheck to paycheck," according to a recent report on the Financial Resilience of Americans from the FINRA Education Foundation. Meanwhile, experts predict that Social Security funds could dry up by 2035.
So, why don't people save more? After all, the benefits of compounding interest aren't exactly a secret: Investing a few hundred bucks every month would make most people millionaires by retirement if they start in their twenties. However, the recent FINRA report found that many Americans have alarmingly low levels of financial literacy, a topic that's not taught in most public schools.
Even for the financially literate, saving money is psychologically difficult
But what if we could infuse the instant gratification of video games into our long-term financial habits? In other words, what if finance looked less like an Excel spreadsheet and more like your favorite video game?
A growing number of finance applications are making that a reality. By using the same strategies video game designers have been optimizing for decades, gamifying personal finance could be one of the most efficient ways to help people save for the future while reaping instant psychological rewards. But it doesn't come without risks.
What is gamification?
In simple terms, gamification takes the motivating power of video games and applies it to other areas of life. The global research company Gartner offers a slightly more technical definition of gamification: "the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals."
The odds are you have encountered gamification already. It's utilized by many popular apps, websites, and devices. For example, LinkedIn displays progress bars representing how much profile information you have filled out. The Apple Watch has a "Close Your Rings" feature that shows how many steps you need to walk to meet your daily goal.
Brands have used gamification to boost customer engagement for decades. For example, McDonald's launched its Monopoly game in 1987, which essentially attached lottery tickets to menu items, while M&M's gained consumer attention with Eye-Spy Pretzel, an online scavenger hunt game that went viral in 2010.
In addition to marketing, gamification is used in social media, fitness, education, crowdfunding, military recruitment, and employee training, just to name a few applications. The Chinese government has even gamified aspects of its Social Credit System, in which citizens perform or refrain from various activities to earn points that represent trustworthiness.
Finance is arguably one of the best-suited fields for gamification. One reason is that financial data can be easily measured and graphed. Perhaps more importantly, financial decisions occur in the background of almost everything we do in modern life, from deciding what we eat for lunch to where we are going to spend our lives.
Gamification doesn't just make boring stuff fun; it's also an effective way to change our behavior. Used properly, it can also disrupt our habits.
The nature of habits
It's tempting to think that we make our way through life by thoughtfully considering the information before us and making sensible choices. That's not really the case. Research suggests that about 40 percent of our daily activities are performed out of habit, a term the American Journal of Psychology defines as a "more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience."
In other words, we spend much of our lives on autopilot. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we rely on habits: our brains require a lot of energy, especially when we're faced with tough decisions and complex problems, like financial planning. It's relatively easy to rely on learned behavioral patterns that provide a quick, reliable solution. However, those patterns don't always serve our long-term interests.
Saving money is a good example. Imagine you have $500 with which to do whatever you want. You could invest it. Or you could go on a shopping spree. Unfortunately, the brain doesn't process these two options the same way; in fact, it actually processes the investing option as something like a pain stimulus.
Why gamification works
Saving is painful. But can't people simply choose to be more financially responsible? In short: Yes, but it takes a lot of effort. After all, when it comes to changing behavior, willpower is only part of the equation.
Some psychologists think willpower is a finite resource, or that it's like an emotion whose motivational power ebbs and flows based on what's happening around us. For example, you might establish a monthly budget and stick to it for a couple weeks. But then you get stressed. The next time you're out shopping, you might find it harder to resist making an impulsive purchase in your stressed-out state.
Pixel Art Lootvlasdv via Adobe Stock
"A growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll," the American Psychological Association writes. "Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse." In the terminology of psychology, this is called ego depletion.
Gamification offers a way to outsource your willpower. That's because games offer psychological rewards that can motivate us to perform certain actions that might otherwise have seemed too boring, taxing, or emotionally draining. What's more, gamifying parts of your life is less of a change of mind and more of a change of environment.
A 2017 study published in Computers in Human Behavior noted that "enriching the environment with game design elements, as gamification does by definition, directly modifies that environment, thereby potentially affecting motivational and psychological user experiences."
The study argued that games are most motivational when they address three key psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and social relatedness. It's easy to imagine how games can tap into these categories. For competence, games can feature badges and performance graphs. For autonomy, games can offer customizable avatars. And for social relatedness, games can feature compelling storylines and multiplayer gameplay.
Gamification and the brain
Games can motivate us by satisfying our psychological needs and giving us a sense of reward. From a neurological perspective, this occurs through the release of "feel-good" neurotransmitters, namely dopamine and oxytocin.
"Two core things have to happen in the brain to influence your decision-making," Paul Zak, a neuroscientist and professor of economic sciences at Claremont Graduate University, told Big Think. "The first is you have to attend to that information. That's driven by the brain's production of dopamine. The second thing, you've got to get my lazy brain to care about the outcomes. And that caring is driven by emotional resonance. And that's associated with the brain's production of oxytocin."
Cheerful Father And Son Competing In Video Games At HomeProstock-studio via Adobe Stock
When released simultaneously, these neurotransmitters can put us into a state that Zak calls "neurologic immersion." In this state, our everyday habits have less control over our behavior, and we're better able to take deliberate action. It's an idea Zak and his colleagues developed over two decades of using brain-imaging technology to study the nature of extraordinary experiences.
As he wrote in an article published by the World Experience Organization, neurologic immersion can occur when experiences, including video games, are unexpected, emotionally charged, narrowing one's focus to the experience itself, easy to remember, and provoking actions.
"The components of the extraordinary come as a package, not in isolation from each other," Zak wrote. "It's the 'action' part that is key to finding immersion. Extraordinary experiences cause people to take an action, whether it's donating to charity, buying a product, posting on social media, or returning to enjoy an experience again."
Games can invoke these types of immersive experiences.. But how exactly are financial organizations using gamification to help people "level up" their financial futures?
Gamifying personal finance
Banks and financial companies have been using gamification for years. What started with simple concepts, like PNC Bank's "Punch the Pig" savings feature, has evolved into a diverse field of games that are helping people stick to budgets, save money, and pay off debt.
What's surprising about the gamification of personal finance is that some of the most successful apps are redirecting destructive financial behaviors, like buying lottery tickets, toward positive outcomes. One example is an app called Long Game, which uses an approach called "lottery savings."
"People actually really love the lottery," Lindsay Holden, co-founder and CEO of Long Game, told Big Think. "The lottery today is a $70-billion-dollar industry in the U.S., and the people that are buying lotto tickets are the people that least should be buying lotto tickets. And so how can we redirect that spend into something that's helping them in their lives?"
Long Game's answer is to encourage users to make automatic or one-time investments into a prize-linked savings account. As users make investments, they earn coins that can be used to play games, some of which offer cash prizes. But unlike the real lottery, the prize money comes from banks that are partnered with Long Game, meaning users can't lose their principal investment.
Blast is a savings app aimed at traditional gamers. The platform lets users connect a savings account to their video game accounts. Users then set performance goals in the video games, such as killing a certain number of enemies. Accomplishing these goals triggers a pre-selected investment into the savings accounts. In addition to earning interest, users can also win prize money by accomplishing certain missions or placing high on public leaderboards.
"Gamers tell us they feel better with the time they spend gaming when they know they are micro-saving or micro-earning in the background," Blast co-founder and CEO Walter Cruttenden said in a statement.
Young gamer playing a video game wearing headphones.sezer66 via Adobe Stock
Fortune City takes a different approach to gamified finance. The app encourages users to track their spending habits, which are represented by visually appealing graphs. As users log expenses, they're able to build buildings in their own virtual city. The expense categories match the types of buildings users can construct; for example, buying food lets users construct a restaurant. It's like "SimCity" meets certified public accountant.
The risks of gamification
Gamifying your finances might help you save money, but it doesn't come without risks. After all, receiving extrinsic rewards when we perform a behavior can affect our intrinsic motivation to repeat that behavior both positively and negatively. It's a phenomenon called the overjustification effect.
In addition, gamified finance apps can also be addictive and encourage risky financial behavior. Robinhood, for example, uses visually appealing performance metrics and lottery-like game elements to incentivize the trading of stocks and cryptocurrencies. But while investing in these assets might be a good financial decision for some people, Robinhood arguably encourages its users to be "players" in the difficult world of trading, not necessarily rational investors.
What's more, gamification doesn't seem to work for everyone.
"From social psychology and behavioural economics, we know that the most likely [result of] gamification [is that you] will motivate some people, will demotivate other people, and for a third group there'll be no effect at all," noted a 2017 study on gamification and mobile banking published in Internet Research.
But given that 14.1 million Americans are unbanked, and millions more struggle with financial literacy, it's reasonable to think that gamified finance apps could help many people work toward financial independence.
"One of the most interesting things we've found is that people want help when it comes to making difficult decisions," Zak told Big Think. "In my view, any app that helps you be a more effective saver is probably a good app. But I think we have to do a lot more work to really understand the underlying neuroscience of gamification. And so we need to continue to design games that teach you more about how to 'level up in life,' not just level up in the game."