Philipp Koellinger was recently appointed professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the UvA’s Amsterdam Business School. The German scientist is also an authority in the field of genoeconomics, an interdisciplinary subject area that explores the influence of genetics on economic behaviour.
Koellinger will continue his genetics research in a new joint research group with his former colleagues at Erasmus University Rotterdam.
It has become clear that the entrepreneurial gene simply does not exist. Although many behavioural traits seem to be partially heritable, this is usually not just due to one or a few genes with a strong influence. Behaviour is much more complex and is typically influenced by countless genetic variations called SNP’s (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms, referred to as ‘snips’), each with a tiny effect. SNP’s are genetic differences across individuals that make us unique in terms of appearance, aptitudes and temperament.
In one of his research projects, Koellinger and his colleagues investigated the link between genetic variants and entrepreneurship. Koellinger: “Entrepreneurs have very specific characteristics that distinguish them from other people. They see the world with different eyes and make different decisions. Part of the story seems to be genetic differences across people that contribute to this. It would be interesting to discover which SNP’s play a role in this process. In general, there’s a trend where the field of economics is opening up to other scientific approaches such as psychology and even biology.” The genetic variants, the SNP’s entrepreneurs have in common that distinguish them from non-entrepreneurs, have yet to be discovered. According to Koellinger this is largely because until now available population samples were too small. There is a lack of sufficient databases containing genetic material (blood or saliva) from entrepreneurs. This makes it difficult to produce valid results.
The first successful research linking genetic variants and behaviour – in this case expressed in terms of educational attainment – involved 126,559 individuals. This research was carried out by the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium, which provided scientists access to genetic databases across the globe. Koellinger is one of the founders of this consortium. Researchers had data on educational attainment of the individuals studied in the sample: how many years of schooling they had and/or if they had a college degree. Koellinger: “This project found three specific SNP’s that play a role. The combined effect of the 2.5 million SNPs that were examined is very small: 2 to 3 per cent. When looked at in terms of each individual SNP this effect is minimal. But this was the first time specific genetic markers showed a demonstrable effect on a complex behavioural trait – something that is actually dependent on many environmental factors.” The results were so spectacular that they were published in Science, one of the world’s most authoritative scientific journals, with Koellinger as one of the corresponding authors. “We expect that with a much larger research population many more influential SNP’s will emerge,” says Koellinger. He expects that the actual influence of genetics on educational attainment is about 40 per cent, based on research involving twins.
According to Koellinger his research is valuable for multiple reasons: “Insight into how genes work will in time make it possible to better understand how the environment impacts human behaviour and socio-economic outcomes. This could be useful, for example, when evaluating educational reforms. There is also a connection between education and health and genetic research on education may be valuable for medical research purposes as well. For example, there are clearly documented links between educational attainment and predisposition to dementia, heart and vascular disease, or obesity. It may be possible to use insights into the genetics of educational attainment to better understand the biological causes of mental health, and to improve the accuracy of identifying individuals at risk for specific diseases. But this is all in the future. The major significance of our research at the moment is that it’s the first reliable benchmark for what to expect as a plausible effect size of genetic variants on human behaviours. Prior to our work the estimates of the influence of individual SNP’s on complex behavioural outcomes varied from 0 to 10 per cent. Both of these extremes have now been proven to be incorrect.”
Koellinger is aware of the sensitivity surrounding genetic research. “The more we understand what genes do, the more sensitive it proves to be who has access to this information. It is the most personal information we have, but on an individual level it can be extremely valuable. For example, our research could one day help to prevent mismatches in the labour market. Imagine that someone is genetically predisposed to be an entrepreneur but instead chooses a job as an office clerk. It’s not hard to imagine that this could lead to depression or other undesirable side effects. It may be beneficial for people to be aware of their genetic aptitude so they can make the right choices in life.”