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Genoeconomics is a science that deals with the correlation between genetics and economics. It was propounded on the idea that an individual’s genetic make up could influence their economic behaviour. Ever since the human genome was sequenced two decades ago, the field of genetics has seen a massive increase in its application in various fields. Doctors can now look at your DNA and tell you the possibility of developing diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s. They can also take a look at your family history and determine what diseases your unborn child might have. Scientists have identified the ‘warrior gene’, which is linked to aggressive behaviour. It has also been established that IQ and personality traits are inheritable, which makes the study of genetic material quite intriguing.

With all these developments taking place, it is unsurprising that scientists started studying genetic material to find its correlation with financial prudence. In 2013, a study was conducted by Northwestern University, Vanderbilt University, and Stanford, which focused on the 5-HTTLPR gene and its two variants – the short version and the long version. People with the short version showed increased signs of anxiety as compared to the candidates with the long version of the gene. It was concluded that people with the long version were more likely to take risky financial decisions as compared to the people with the short version, given that all the candidates had the same level of income, education and cognitive abilities.

Another study was conducted on the MAOA gene (encodes for monoamine oxidase A, an enzyme which breaks down dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline) which gave an insight into the degree of impulsive buying depending on the functional efficiency of the gene. The low function efficiency allele (variant or type of gene) was linked to impulsive behaviour and it was seen that 43% of the people with this allele had credit card debts as compared to 38% of the people with the high functional efficiency allele. At first glance this difference may seem small, but it was later backed up by in-depth analysis, thereby giving us a strong foothold in the subject of genoeconomics.

As soon as the results of the study of the MAOA gene were disclosed, the media took it upon themselves to bring cheer amongst the debt ridden by publishing headlines like, “Millions of Useless Purchases Explained At Last”, “Blame Your Genes For Debt Binge”, and “How A Spot On Our X Chromosome Caused Us To Buy A Nintendo Wii On Credit”.

But is it really possible for a single gene to determine why we do what we do? The reality is that a multitude of genes are required to be examined in order to make an informed decision about a particular trait or tendency. Moreover, it is extremely important to replicate a hypothesis in order to prove its credibility. Another limitation is the effects of the environment on a person’s behaviour. An individual’s life is defined not only by genetics but also by one’s upbringing – Nature and Nurture. This limitation can be diminished to a certain extent by creating a larger sample size, and there have been efforts to include more people in the study, but even then scientists would have to consider various assumptions before arriving at a definite conclusion.

Now, assuming that the further studies in genoeconomics are conclusive and we live in a world where genetics drive the majority of our thoughts and actions, what kind of implications would that entail? Is our genetic make up going to define our limited strengths, or is it going to give us an indication of where we need to improve ourselves the most? Is it not possible that our genotypes will end up playing a major role in defining who we are rather than what we could be?

Economically speaking, in a world like this, genoeconomics could have an adverse implication. With the falling costs of genome sequencing, it may become a mandatory part of our lives. Companies and Governments may use genetic information to influence consumer behaviour across various segments. Banks may consider it while evaluating our credit scores. Financial companies can make it a prerequisite for recruitment. Schools and colleges may use it for admissions. Does this mean that only the genetically enhanced will be “allowed” to be rich and rise to the top? If yes, then the possibility of ‘super babies’ is going to be inevitable in the near future.

A few years ago, a Harvard geneticist, George Church, created a dating app that matched users based on their DNA, in order to prevent the possibility of genetic diseases in any future offspring. This was a not-so-subtle attempt at eugenics, even though he denied the claims. Similarly, people will now look to produce offspring with traits that exhibit financial prudence because – let’s face it, everyone wants to be rich. Countries could use this concept to create a better workforce. Sperm/ oocyte donation can become a lucrative career for those who have desirable genes.

It is clear that the consequences of reliance on genoeconomics can be disastrous. As Thomas Sowell rightly said, “The first lesson of economics is scarcity : there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it.” While it is ethical to not let genetic limitations decide our future, people will always want more – more money, more success, more opportunities – and genes are a gateway to that. Discrimination exists in many forms – and while genoeconomics may sound interesting, it should be explored with caution, because it could easily normalise another form of discrimination.

By Mahika Bhatnagar


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