Genetic makeup makes people spend precious money on lottery tickets with a one-in-a-million chance of winning, while at the same time buy fire or car insurance? Well, scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and two Asian universities say the answer can be found in our genetic makeup.
Richard Ebstein, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his colleagues combined the tools of experimental economics and molecular genetics to examine the role of a well-characterized gene, monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), in predicting whether subjects are more likely to buy the lottery or insurance (or both) under well-controlled laboratory conditions.
In the experiment, 350 Han Chinese subjects were recruited in Beijing and participated in two simple choice tasks, representing proclivities to purchase lottery tickets and insurance, using real monetary incentives.
For example, the subjects were given options to keep a very small cash return upfront, with no risk, or of gambling bigger amounts that they were given upfront but with a minimal chance of actually winning and keeping the money in a lottery drawing.
In the second task, concerning insurance, subjects were asked whether or not they would insure a certain but insignificant loss or would take out insurance on a larger amount with a real but low risk of actual loss.
They found that subjects with a high-activity variation of the MAOA gene are characterized by a preference for the longshot lottery and also less insurance purchasing than subjects with the low-activity genetic version.
This is the first result to link attitude towards longshot risks to a specific gene. It complements other, recent findings on the neurobiological basis of economic risk taking.
Ebstein said that as the world financial system slowly emerges from the near economic meltdown, it is worth considering, that inborn biases, coded by common genetic variants, may be a major factor in fuelling people's actions regarding longshot options - with concomitant effects on financial markets.
The article was just published online on PLoS ONE.