Gene of the Week: Debt

Posted by Jesse Reynolds May 19, 2010
Biopolitical Times

A recent study of a genetic variation led to typically exaggerated headlines such as "Overspending: Blame It on Your Debt Gene?" and "Scientists Have Reportedly Discovered the Credit Debt Gene." The press release from the London School of Economics, which carried out the research, blared "Credit card debt? It's in my genes (but don't tell the bank)."

Of course, the reality is less dramatic. Two researchers examined data from 2500 young American adults in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Their white paper (presumably not yet peer-reviewed) reported that particular alleles of a gene previously associated with addictive and impulsive behaviors (and as “genes of the week” for “being a gangsta” and “will you vote?”) made people 16% more likely to carry credit card debt--a significant but small amount.

One of the researchers, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve was appropriately circumspect about these results. He answered the question, "Is there a ‘debt gene’?" by saying [PDF]:

No, and there will never be a debt gene simply because credit card behavior is not a singular discrete trait like blue eyes that you can relate back to a variation of one gene. Credit card borrowing behavior is the result of a number of genes, the environment, and the interaction between genes and environment.

De Neve pointed out that banks presently could legally discriminate against potential borrowers based on this gene, even in the US, despite the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. The obvious conclusion is that stronger policies are needed.

However, one of De Neve's LSE colleagues reached a different and more troubling conclusion. Emmanuel Yujuico, a research fellow in International Affairs, Diplomacy & Strategy, proposed testing for this genetic variant in "those contemplating public service." "Given typical American double standards and lack of guilt over inflicting its enormous deficits on everyone else," he said, the US "should churn out genetically modified persons who have 'thrifty' genes once these are better understood."

Is this sarcasm or serious policy proposal? You decide.

Paging Gregory Clark!

Previous Genes of the Week: