Genetics predispose us to take risks or avoid them

02 July 2020

  • Study of twins shows genetic predisposition towards risk-taking
  • Identical twins more likely to share attitudes to risk than fraternal twins
  • Those who take financial risks more likely to take risks with their health 
  • While environmental factors still crucial, genetics cannot be ignored

Some people are born risk-takers, while genetics makes others more likely to be risk-averse, research shows.

Those who embrace financial risks, such as investing in the stockmarket, are more likely to take risks in other areas of their life, including exceeding the speed limit while driving and engaging in more dangerous sports, a new study found.

Identical twins were twice as likely to share similar attitudes to risk than non-identical twins, suggesting that genetics play a key role in whether an individual is a risk-taker or is risk-averse.

Professor Nicos Nicolaou, of Warwick Business School, said: “Our ancestors chose between hunting and gathering, in part, because they were predisposed towards tolerating or avoiding risk.

"Equally, today’s humans might be genetically more inclined to choose more high-risk, high-return occupations and investment strategies or safer choices that offer smaller rewards.”

Researchers from Warwick Business School and Weatherhead School of Management in Ohio, US, compared the survey results of 1,898 identical twins with those of 1,344 fraternal (non-identical) twins.

Comparing the within twin-pair correlations between identical and non-identical twins enables us to examine the genetic predisposition of risk-taking behaviours as identical twins share 100 per cent of their genes, while non-identical twins share on average 50 per cent of their segregating genes.

The researchers examined whether people were generally prepared to take risks along with attitudes towards risk in five specific domains: financial matters, sports and leisure, career, car driving and health. Those who were more likely to take risks in one domain, were more likely to take risks in others.

The paper, Common genetic effects on risk-taking preferences and choices, has been published in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty.

Professor Nicolaou said: “Our study does not contend that genes alone determine risk-taking behaviour. Environmental factors are also very important. However, our findings do show that genetic influences cannot be ignored.

“Our results also suggest that non-shared experiences between the twins outside the home, such as work environment and colleagues, have a far greater influence on attitudes to risk taking than shared twin experiences such as parenting.

"The fact that parents and children commonly share attitudes towards risk may be due to both genetics and cultural transmission.”

 

Professor Nicos Nicolaou is the GE Capital Chair of Mid-Market Economics at Warwick Business School. He teaches Entrepreneurship and New Venture Creation on the Executitve MBA.

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