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risky tightrope walker

Do you live life close to the edge? Climb mountains free-style, jump off bridges with small gliding parachutes, have unprotected sex with strangers, or even discuss genetic differences in public meetings? Further, have you been so busy living in the vivid present that you have no savings and no pension, and expect others, who are living boring lives doing dull work, to pay your bills and provide for your old age? If so, and you can bother to pause for a moment to do some reading, here is an interesting study to ponder. Ponder means to think about something carefully, taking your time about it.

Title: Genome-wide study identifies 611 loci associated with risk tolerance and risky behaviors

Linner et al say:

Humans vary substantially in their willingness to take risks. In a combined sample of over one million individuals, we conducted genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of general risk tolerance, adventurousness, and risky behaviors in the driving, drinking, smoking, and sexual domains. We identified 611 approximately independent genetic loci associated with at least one of our phenotypes, including 124 with general risk tolerance. We report evidence of substantial shared genetic influences across general risk tolerance and risky behaviors: 72 of the 124 general risk tolerance loci contain a lead SNP for at least one of our other GWAS, and general risk tolerance is moderately to strongly genetically correlated (r= 0.25 to 0.50) with a range of risky behaviors. Bioinformatics analyses imply that genes near general-risk-tolerance-associated SNPs are highly expressed in brain tissues and point to a role for glutamatergic and GABAergic neurotransmission. We find no evidence of enrichment for genes previously hypothesized to relate to risk tolerance.

They looked at self-assessed risk tolerance, and also risk-taking in automobile speeding, drinking, smoking and number of sexual partners. As per usual, the subjects were European-ancestry subjects. At some stage other ancestries will be studied, I presume, or perhaps not. Once again, these are gigantic sample sizes, and must have taken years and countless meetings and conferences to organize. A bit harder than asking all 60 of your students to fill in a questionnaire.

We also estimated genetic correlations between general risk tolerance and 28 additional phenotypes. These included phenotypes for which we could obtain summary statistics from previous GWAS, as well as five phenotypes for which we conducted new GWAS. The estimated genetic correlations for the personality traits extraversion (r= 0.51), neuroticism (r=0.42), and openness to experience (r=0.33) are substantially larger in magnitude than previously reported phenotypic correlations pointing to substantial shared genetic influences among general risk tolerance and these traits.

Our results provide insights into biological mechanisms that influence general risk tolerance. Our bioinformatics analyses point to the role of gene expression in brain regions that have been identified by neuroscientific studies on decision-making, notably the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, and midbrain, thereby providing convergent evidence with that from neuroscience. Yet our analyses failed to find evidence for the main biological pathways that had been previously hypothesized to influence risk tolerance. Instead, our analyses implicate genes involved in glutamatergic and GABAergic neurotransmission, which were heretofore not generally believed to play a role in risk tolerance.

The authors add a cautionary note:

Across the risky behaviors we study, we find that the genetic correlations are considerably higher than the phenotypic correlations (even after the latter are corrected for measurement error) and that many lead SNPs are shared across our phenotypes. These observations suggest that the low phenotypic correlations across domains are due to environmental factors that dilute the effects of a genetically-influenced domain-general factor of risk tolerance.

Risky behaviours genetic correlation

So, what can we conclude from the genetic correlations? Tentatively, that the “genes for” risk taking are associated with the “genes for” having intercourse early in life, having babies while still a teenager, using cannabis and being self-employed (which must cover a wide range of activities); slightly associated to educational attainment and cranial volume, somewhat to ADHD, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and also to extraversion, openness to experience and to stability, and to household income. This is an interesting constellation of features, and mostly conforms to pattern for “fast life histories” so beloved of evolutionary researchers. It would be interesting to know if these risk-takers have pensions and savings. I assume not. Of course, these are correlations between the genes for one thing (risk-taking) and the genes for other things (attitudes and lifestyles) but in reality the links between the genes for risk-taking and all the other measures are slight in reality. Other factors intervene.

This is a crucial point. Studies like these can point to associations between genes and behaviour. This one has a strong story to tell, one which hangs together and makes sense. Yet, it has low predictive value at the moment. Perhaps risk-taking really does depend on getting into bad company (that is, it requires the amplifying effect of being with other risk-takers for a critical mass of dare-devils to spin into dangerous activities). Could such vulnerable young persons be saved by joining the Boy Scouts? Possibly. Some cultural practices might channel risk-takers into pro-social actions, while other cultural practices let them drift into trouble.

As per usual, the percentage variance accounted for is very small, 1.6% at best. This is the best genetic research ever done on this topic, and yet in future it might be seen as only a starting point, so fast is the genetic field progressing.

Here is a thing, which I could not find directly addressed in the paper. Yes, the subjects of this study are risk takers, but in fact only mildly so. Driving fast, smoking, drinking, and having lots of sex with different people all have their risks, and their pleasures, but they are small beer. The main point is: the real risk takers probably fell out of the gene pool long ago. We are dealing with some of their surviving children, and a vast mass of more cautious survivors.


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  1. David H says:

    “[T]he real risk takers probably fell out of the gene pool long ago.”
    Since we live in unprecedentedly safe times and benefit from modern medical care, let’s not count out all those risk-takers who love booze and unprotected sex. Has anyone ever explained to you how babies get made? Of course, in Western countries, those”oops” babies tend to get aborted, so that’s one modern technology that’s working against the takeover of the risk-takers. But I’m sure the effect of abortion is uneven, and I strongly suspect that play-it-safe genotypes are in retreat.

  2. res says:

    I am surprised the correlation with conscientiousness is so small (it is negative as I would expect). Any thoughts on that?

    P.S. I did a quick text search of the paper for “consc” but had no hits.

  3. dearieme says:

    First things first: thank God you’re alive and well, doc. Welcome back. There will now be a delay while I read your post.

    Here we are: “the percentage variance accounted for is very small, 1.6% at best.” I remember expressing some scepticism at early DNA/IQ results, because only a tiny proportion was “explained”. But that proportion grew substantially over a few years, did it not?

    P.S. in hopes of helping fellow readers: “… green bars represent significant estimates with the expected signs, where higher risk tolerance is associated with riskier behavior. For the other phenotypes, blue bars represent significant estimates. Light green and light blue bars represent genetic correlations that are statistically significant at the 5% level, and dark green and dark blue bars represent correlations that are statistically significant after Bonferroni correction for 34 tests (the total number of phenotypes tested). Grey bars represent correlations that are not statistically significant at the 5% level.”

  4. A long time ago now, probably 20 years or so, the BBC did a programme on the recently discovered “Risk Gene”. It was seen as one gene at the time. The subject of the programme was Vanessa Mae the pop violinist. Vanessa was used to demonstrate that risk takers (from memory)::
    Were more conscientious (worked harder) which contradicts the above.
    Concentrated best in a noisy environment.
    Had specific physiological reactions to driving a racing car.
    Something about friendship circles.

    Interestingly, at the Sochi Olympics, she competed as the Thai entry in downhill slalom skiing.

    The above study is obviously progress. I guess not everyone matches on everything. I definitely come out as a risk taker but equally definitely the Boy Scouts saved me from many vices. Which is the bigger thrill, smoking or building an aerial ropeway over rocks and river? Climbing cliff faces or drinking alcohol? Unfortunately, being sent to boarding school at 16 and an engineering career thereafter saved me from excessive exposure to the opposite sex.

    Thanks Dearieme for the significance note.

  5. FKA Max says: • Website

    Monoamine Oxidase A Gene (MAOA) Associated with Attitude Towards Longshot Risks

    Decision making often entails longshot risks involving a small chance of receiving a substantial outcome. People tend to be risk preferring (averse) when facing longshot risks involving significant gains (losses). This differentiation towards longshot risks underpins the markets for lottery as well as for insurance. Both lottery and insurance have emerged since ancient times and continue to play a useful role in the modern economy. In this study, we observe subjects’ incentivized choices in a controlled laboratory setting, and investigate their association with a widely studied, promoter-region repeat functional polymorphism in monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA). We find that subjects with the high activity (4-repeat) allele are characterized by a preference for the longshot lottery and also less insurance purchasing than subjects with the low activity (3-repeat) allele. This is the first result to link attitude towards longshot risks to a specific gene. It complements recent findings on the neurobiological basis of economic risk taking.

    Figure 1. MAOA gene, lottery, and insurance.

    (A). MAOA and lottery. Subjects with the high activity allele (4-repeat allele) are significantly more likely to exhibit longshot preference than subject with the low activity allele (3-repeat allele). (B). MAOA and insurance. Subjects with the low activity allele (3-repeat allele) are more likely to exhibit preference for insurance than subject with the high activity allele (4-repeat allele).

    This is another interesting study on the subject:

    The Relationship between Risk-Taking Propensity and the COMT Val158Met Polymorphism Among Early Adolescents as a Function of Sex

    Results indicate that females, but not males, who are carriers of the COMT158Met allele had higher risk-taking propensity scores on the BART-Y compared to Val homozygotes.
    […] Females as compared with males tend to experience affective disorders at greater rates and engage in risk-taking behaviors in order to escape from negative affective states.

    What this indicates to me is that high-activity MAOA (low serotonin levels) and low-activity COMT (high dopamine levels) carriers are the highest-risk-taking-propensity group, but the risk-taking behavior in this group is mostly a coping mechanism for and distraction from anxiety and other worries and mental hyperactivities like (worst-case) scenario building (e.g. hypochondria), etc. and I am not sure this necessarily qualifies as conscious risk-taking, but rather as a form of self-medication.

    Northwestern Europeans, especially Northwestern European females, are the population with the highest frequency of the this gene/allele combination:

    COMT Met and MAOA-H is the “worrier pacifist” combination/group, which is characterized by above-average intelligence/creativity (balanced dopamine levels), lowered performance under stress, and lower risk-taking and aggression.
    Northern Europeans are the group with the highest percentage of “worrier pacifists” (35.75%), followed by Ashkenazi Jews (20%), and Africans and East Asians have the lowest percentage (13.5%) of “worrier pacifists” in their populations.

    Women can be just as daring and risk-taking as men

    Women can be just as risky as men — or even riskier — when the conventional macho measures of daring — such as betting vast sums on a football game — are replaced by less stereotypical criteria, according to new research.

    “Traditional measures of risk-taking tend to overlook the fact that women take many risks all the time — they go horseback riding, they challenge sexism, they are more likely to donate their kidneys to family members. In our research, we show that when you ask men and women how likely they are to take more feminine risks, the gender difference in risk-taking suddenly disappears or even reverses with women reporting slightly higher levels of risk-taking. We’ve been overlooking female risk-taking because our measures have been biased.”

    Sex, Drugs, and Reckless Driving

    Study 3 further demonstrates that conventional, masculine risk behaviors are perceived as more risky than newly generated, more feminine items, even when risks are matched. We conclude that there is confirmation bias in risk-taking measurement.

  6. @FKA Max

    Thanks so much for these extra references.

    • Replies: @FKA Max
  7. FKA Max says: • Website
    @James Thompson

    You are very welcome, Mr. Thompson. I am glad you found the links useful.

    I hope things have calmed down for you and around you, and that you are not under heavy assault anymore after the whole Toby Young controversy, etc.

    You are a true (free speech and scientific discovery) hero to me.

    … or even discuss genetic differences in public meetings?

    What you did is much riskier these days than

    Climb mountains free-style, jump off bridges with small gliding parachutes, have unprotected sex with strangers, …

    , in my opinion, even if many people still are not able to fully appreciate the risks involved in such “politically incorrect” conduct and research as pursued by you and Mr. Young.

    In his book Trump: The Art of the Comeback (1997), he wrote: “Women have one of the great acts of all time. The smart ones act very feminine and needy, but inside they are real killers. The person who came up with the expression ‘the weaker sex’ was either very naive or had to be kidding. I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye—or perhaps another body part.”

    Yes, ‘Man Flu’ Is Real
    Don’t laugh; it may be worse for men

    An analysis ( ) published this month in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) looked at studies of various viruses and respiratory illnesses in men and women, and concluded that “men may not be exaggerating symptoms but have weaker immune responses to viral respiratory viruses, leading to greater morbidity and mortality than seen in women.”
    So why do men’s symptoms seem to be worse than women’s? Ismail and her colleagues suggest it’s because testosterone and estrogen affect the immune system differently. Estrogen revs up the immune system, so women typically feel worse initially but recover faster. Testosterone, however, slightly suppresses the immune system, so men tend to stay sicker longer. (In the study the male mice took an average of 48 hours to recover, whereas the female mice took 24 hours.)

    Obviously, a study on mice doesn’t prove that the same reactions occur in humans, but it does suggest that hormones and other factors may cause gender differences in how the body responds to illness.

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  8. @FKA Max

    Thanks for your kind words, and these extra findings, suggestive of further sex differences.

  9. Risky subjects with regard to your personal experiences of late make for a coincidentia oppositorum phenomenon.

    = Thanks for risk-taking (=speaking out) – !


    I admired this double-talk of yours a lot:

    “Further, have you been so busy living in the vivid present that you have no savings and no pension, and expect others, who are living boring lives doing dull work, to pay your bills and provide for your old age? If so, and you can bother to pause for a moment to do some reading, here is an interesting study to ponder. Ponder means to think about something carefully, taking your time about it.”

    (These lines get highlighted when you explain the word to ponder = the antidote to going berserk, actually).

  10. Risk tolerance or risk ignorance.

  11. OR also ”precocious” biological/sexual/emotional maturation (+ instinctive/intrinsically impulsive personality)

  12. Factorize says:

    res, you see this one yet?
    Wow!! What a shocker!
    They will need to rewrite the history books … again.

    Old English really aren’t Old English?
    nouvel anglais? Ouch!
    or nuevo inglés? Oucher!

    There is a lot of ancient DNA out there with other interesting stories to tell us.
    What might their IQs have been?

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  13. @Factorize

    They probably achieved this population replacement by having calm discussions with the locals about the superiority of their culture and religions, not to say their pottery.

  14. Factorize says:

    Yes, or more probably (as noted in the article) genocide through germs.

    {Hmm, the English are quite particular about their cuppa. Certainly makes one wonder whether their love of tea might somehow derive from some deep genetic connection to pottery.}

    One of the oldest and most frequently recurring stories of history: invaders go some place new –> the locals become sick (no immunity) invaders are fine because they have immunity. The arrivistes eventually become pure laine.

    Ditto Conquest of the New World. Conquest really is a misnomer. How heroic can this be, when the true story line is that it is more a sick out?

    This is a startling development. The entire notion of an English race just went puff! It is not reasonable to think that 4,000 years would be enough time for anything close to a differential “race” to develop. I wonder whether this might mean that the Irish could be genetically closer to the earlier inhabitants.

    • Replies: @Philip Owen
  15. @Factorize

    “Celtic” genetics and origins is a whole minefield by itself. In the early 20thC there was a very clear English/Welsh line across the River Severn. (2″ difference in height of army recruits) for example. Rural Welsh Y DNA is quite distinct from English. (The coalfield is a mix with Anglo-Irish immigrants 100 plus years ago).

  16. Factorize says:

    Europe .. so much history! Too much history!
    I really cannot handle all that drama.

    Human civilization would now be so much further advanced if we
    had spent less energy invading and more energy keeping to our

    The Celts replaced the Bell Beakers, OK.
    How about the pre-Bell Beakers?

  17. Factorize says:

    Yeah, Japan!
    They have put a 162K BB sample into the game!
    When will all the other BBs out there holding their cards close fold?

    Once we move much beyond 2M all the research utility along with
    all that wealth will go poof. Very unhappy taxpayers.

    PMID: 29403010

  18. @FKA Max

    “Traditional measures of risk-taking tend to overlook the fact that women take many risks all the time — they go horseback riding, they challenge sexism, they are more likely to donate their kidneys to family members. In our research, we show that when you ask men and women how likely they are to take more feminine risks, the gender difference in risk-taking suddenly disappears or even reverses with women reporting slightly higher levels of risk-taking. We’ve been overlooking female risk-taking because our measures have been biased.”

    Women and men don’t have the same interests, so horseback riding might correlate with motorbike (off road or on road) shenanigans. Challenging sexism? Really? Donating organs might be the female version of going out to confront the predatory beast (man or animal). But then I’m a huge risk taker (serial entrepreneur, smoker, drug experimenter, authority mocker, speeder (170mph on public highway), motorbike madman (off road), snowmobiler (100+mph on a 10’ wide icy trail through trees, boater (severe weather), etc. And no, I haven’t a pension, nor any expectation (nor any desire) to reach old age. So my choice of females has mainly been versions of myself with a vagina, nice tits, and pleasing face. I’d say “adrenaline junkie” is more apt as most risks are calculated to keep risks as low as possible while yielding my adrenaline fix.

    Any studies on adrenaline addiction from genetic standpoint? Risk here is poorly defined. Many risks are just stupid and very likely to result in death or major injury (ie shouting “niqqer” in a showing of Black Panther) with no upside potential. Those genes probably do get removed from the pool.

    • Replies: @FKA Max
  19. FKA Max says: • Website
    @Stan d Mute

    I’d say “adrenaline junkie” is more apt as most risks are calculated to keep risks as low as possible while yielding my adrenaline fix.

    Any studies on adrenaline addiction from genetic standpoint?

    I would add “dopamine junkie” as well, or especially.

    I briefly commented on this:

    I especially liked your comment on how “shallow affect” individuals crave adrenaline and dopamine hits and highs, and how you thought that this might explain the wide-spread gambling addiction in the Chinese.

    I completely agree with you that these individuals seek out adrenaline and dopamine-releasing experiences, and I also, like you, believe that this is the reason for the Chinese’s gambling addiction problem, and also the explanation for the Chinese opium addiction epidemics of the past:

    But it is not all bad news. I have speculated that this “shallow affect” effect actually gives one an advantage in stressful test taking situations, etc. More on this in the following comments thread:

    You likely have high-activity COMT and therefore crave and seek out “stressful”/”high-stakes” situations because it raises your brain dopamine to an optimal level:

    Performance Under Stress: Are you a Strategist, a Warrior, or a hybrid of the two?

    Details here:

    A more active version of COMT removes dopamine more quickly from the brain, while a less active version takes longer to clear dopamine, resulting in longer reward and motivational effects. At rest, high levels of dopamine are optimal as they allow for efficient information processing and improved attention (4). During periods of high stress, what is optimal reverses; dopamine levels that are too high actually negatively impact cognitive functioning (5,6).

    Is your child a worrier or warrior?


    • Replies: @Stan d Mute
  20. @FKA Max

    Thank you for this. I’m digesting, questioning, and seeking answers as time permits. It appears from my initial muddling follow up that it’s considerably more complex than you present, but then that’s the rabbit hole of genetic influence on behavior isn’t it – many complex variables – and particularly striking to me is the pharmacological “one size fits all” response (ie COMT relationship to ADHD addressed by amphetamines as panacea if dopamine reuptake is one root factor). I’d never heard of COMT before your reply so I could be completely misunderstanding even now – this is all new to me and seemingly at least as complex (and often as non-intuitive) as quantum physics. Always striking how little we really know..

  21. Factorize says:

    I am trying to write into a research essay how national IQ is thought related to national Income.

    Much of this research has been done by Mankind Quarterly and those associated with this journal.
    wiki leaves little to the imagination when it describes Mankind as an ” “infamous racist journal”, and “journal of ‘scientific racism’” “. This is the first time in my academic career in which I have been very unclear to what extent I should acknowledge that contextual background of a peer reviewed journal might be necessary. None of the essays I have written for my science courses ever caused me to have such internal conflict.

    Is there an accepted rule in a style guide that writers could use to alert readers that the presented material need to be considered with an especially critical mind?

  22. Dear Factorize,
    You should always have an especially critical mind! In that way you can judge whether the description of any particular journal as requiring especial criticism is itself worthy of especial criticism.
    You may also wish to evaluate the notion of “scientific racism”. That is an oxymoron. Science searches for the truth, and the truth cannot be racist.
    I trust you will evaluate my remarks with especial criticism.
    All power to your critical mind.

  23. Sean says:

    Dr James Walters, from Cardiff University, who led the study, said: “Many of the genetic variants that confer risk to schizophrenia are relatively common in the population and many scientists would have expected them to be selected against by natural selection, become rare, and eventually disappear from the population.

    “Many theories have emerged to explain this. One of these is that genetic risk for schizophrenia must have, or have had in the past, a positive effect to balance against the negative ones.

    “We did not find any evidence for a so-called ‘positive selection’ but instead found that many gene variants linked to schizophrenia reside in regions of the genome in which natural selection is not very effective in the first place.

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