What does Bill Gates have in common with Lee Kong Chian? They may both have a variant of the DRD4 gene, which, say researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS), makes people more prone to give. The DRD4 gene has many functions, but this is the first time that this gene has been linked to the giving spirit as well as risk-taking thanks to the work undertaken by psychologist Professor Richard Ebstein and economist Professor Chew Soo Hong at NUS.
Prof Ebstein and Prof Chew, who are studying the biology and genetics of human decision-making – bringing a molecular approach to understanding the decision-making process – are pioneers in this area of research. There are only two or three other groups in the world working in this area. Prof Ebstein and Prof Chew’s projects – The AXA Project on the Biology of Decision-Making Under Risk, and Genes, God and Generosity – the Yin Yang of DNA and Culture – are supported by generous gifts from AXA Research Fund and The John Templeton Foundation. Both approach the age-old nature versus nurture debate with the tools of scientific inquiry. These involve playing experimental games with subjects and genetic testing through blood and saliva samples. The aim is to look for specific genetic variants that can partially predict decision-making preferences.
“The core idea is to use experimental operating procedures pioneered in behavioural economics – the use of games – to determine people’s risk and social preferences,” says Prof Ebstein. Adds Prof Chew, “The longterm impact of this research is to better understand and predict how people make decisions that impact themselves as well as others. We are going beyond observable behaviour to biology and studying behaviour at the molecular and neural level.”
So can you blame your parents for you being Mr Scrooge instead of Mr Gates? To answer, Prof Ebstein cites an experiment he ran involving 3,000 university students in Singapore and Beijing. All of them were of Han stock, which ensured a similar gene pool. The students were asked to play the Dictator game, in which each student was given an envelope containing money. The students could decide how much of it to keep and how much to give away to an unknown beneficiary. The students remained anonymous during the entire process. Which group was more generous? The Beijing students. Given their similar gene pool, one could well say that environment held the key to their different giving responses, says Prof Ebstein. The genetic makeup of these students was also analysed through blood and saliva samples.
On the flip side, Prof Ebstein mentions a similar game played with three-year-old children (involving stickers instead of money), who showed varied giving responses, illustrating that some people are born more generous than others. As Prof Ebstein points out, in most complex traits, genes interact with the environment to guide one’s behaviour. But is it possible to predict behaviour?
For instance, what is the difference between someone who occasionally buys a lottery ticket to someone who gambles his life away? Between a social drinker and an alcoholic? A shopaholic and a recreational shopper? The clues lie in the genes. Afterall it is known that problem gambling, for example, runs in families. Similarly, hormonal differences between men and women impact their giving behaviour. It is quite a universal phenomenon that women give when times are tough and money is “expensive”, says Prof Ebstein while men give when their gift is matched. Another gender difference is that when an offer of money is made to men and women, men are more likely to accept only if they think it is a fair offer. Women are more liable to accept a lower offer, which may explain why women earn less than men. Says Prof Ebstein, “The more masculine the man, the greater his sense of fairness.” In matrilineal societies, however, women have an equal sense of fairness to men. Religion, too, interacts with genes to define behaviour.
These insights hold enormous repercussions for policy makers. The biology of behaviour affects every aspect of life and society – from altruism to impulse-buying to propensity for addictions to the friends we make. Knowledge of one’s innate tendencies can help a person make right decisions, says Prof Ebstein. Just as a person with a history of cancer in the family goes for frequent check-ups, a person with, for instance, addictive tendencies could avail of tailor-made therapies. This is personalised medicine taken to the next level.
It is also not inconceivable that in the near future, people being considered for positions where there is a lot at stake – hedge fund managers, intelligence bureaus – are asked to undergo genetic testing to understand their risk attitude, says Prof Ebstein.
The longterm aim of the project, says Prof Ebstein, is to understand and predict behaviour and the gifts from AXA and Templeton have been critical to the project. He says, “We couldn’t have achieved this without funding and we need continued funding as there is a lot more to learn and discover. There is a Hebrew saying, ‘With the meal comes the appetite’. The genetic tests that we are able to do are expanding exponentially. We would like to follow our research subjects over the years and see the choices they make. We have their risk attitude profile and we want to see what jobs they pick, what their married life is like…. the end is nowhere in sight.”