Assistant Professor of Economics, University of Toronto
Assistant Professor, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto (Cross-Appointed Affiliated Faculty) Associate Investigator, The Centre for Applied Genomics, The Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto Contact
Recent research not only confirms the existence of substantial psychological variation around the globe but also highlights the peculiarity of populations that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD). We propose that much of this variation arose as people psychologically adapted to differing kin-based institutions—the set of social norms governing descent, marriage, residence and related domains. We further propose that part of the variation in these institutions arose historically from the Catholic Church’s marriage and family policies, which contributed to the dissolution of Europe’s traditional kin-based institutions, leading eventually to the predominance of nuclear families and impersonal institutions. By combining data on 20 psychological outcomes with historical measures of both kinship and Church exposure, we find support for these ideas in a comprehensive array of analyses across countries, among European regions and between individuals with different cultural backgrounds.
The compromise effect arises when options near the "middle" of a choice set are more appealing. The compromise effect poses conceptual and practical problems for economic research: by influencing choices, it distorts revealed preferences, biasing researchers' inferences about deep (i.e., domain general) preferences. We propose and estimate an econometric model that disentangles and identifies both deep preferences and the context-dependent compromise effect. We demonstrate our method using data from an experiment with 550 participants who made choices over lotteries from multiple price lists. Following prior work, we manipulate the compromise effect by varying the middle options of each multiple price list and then estimate risk preferences without modelling the compromise effect. These naïve parameter estimates are not robust: they change as the compromise effect is manipulated. To eliminate this bias, we incorporate the compromise effect directly into our econometric model. We show that this method generates robust estimates of risk preference parameters that are no longer sensitive to compromise-effect manipulations. This method can be applied to other settings that exhibit the compromise effect.
Humans vary substantially in their willingness to take risks. In a combined sample of over 1 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. Across all GWAS, we identified hundreds of associated loci, including 99 loci associated with general risk tolerance. We report evidence of substantial shared genetic influences across risk tolerance and the risky behaviors: 46 of the 99 general risk tolerance loci contain a lead SNP for at least one of our other GWAS, and general risk tolerance is genetically correlated (|rˆg| ~ 0.25 to 0.50) with a range of risky behaviors. Bioinformatics analyses imply that genes near SNPs associated with general risk tolerance are highly expressed in brain tissues and point to a role for glutamatergic and GABAergic neurotransmission. We found no evidence of enrichment for genes previously hypothesized to relate to risk tolerance.
Here we conducted a large-scale genetic association analysis of educational attainment in a sample of approximately 1.1 million individuals and identify 1,271 independent genome-wide-significant SNPs. For the SNPs taken together, we found evidence of heterogeneous effects across environments. The SNPs implicate genes involved in brain-development processes and neuron-to-neuron communication. In a separate analysis of the X chromosome, we identify 10 independent genome-wide-significant SNPs and estimate a SNP heritability of around 0.3% in both men and women, consistent with partial dosage compensation. A joint (multi-phenotype) analysis of educational attainment and three related cognitive phenotypes generates polygenic scores that explain 11–13% of the variance in educational attainment and 7–10% of the variance in cognitive performance. This prediction accuracy substantially increases the utility of polygenic scores as tools in research.
We examine the psychometric and empirical properties of some commonly used survey-based measures of risk preferences in a population-based sample of 11,000 twins. Using a model that provides a general framework for making inferences about the component of measured risk attitudes that is not due to measurement error, we show that measurement-error adjustment leads to substantially larger estimates of the predictive power of risk attitudes, of the size of the gender gap, and of the magnitude of the sibling correlation. Risk attitudes are predictive of investment decisions, entrepreneurship, and drinking and smoking behaviors; are robustly associated with cognitive ability and personality; and our estimates are often larger than those in the literature. Our results highlight the importance of adjusting for measurement error across a wide range of empirical settings.
Recent findings from molecular genetics now make it possible to test directly for natural selection by analyzing whether genetic variants associated with various phenotypes have been under selection. I leverage these findings to construct polygenic scores that use individuals' genotypes to predict their body mass index, educational attainment (EA), glucose concentration, height, schizophrenia, total cholesterol, and (in females) age at menarche. I then examine associations between these scores and fitness to test whether natural selection has been occurring. My study sample includes individuals of European ancestry born between 1931 and 1953 in the Health and Retirement Study, a representative study of the US population. My results imply that natural selection has been slowly favoring lower EA in both females and males, and are suggestive that natural selection may have favored a higher age at menarche in females. For EA, my estimates imply a rate of selection of about -1.5 months of education per generation (which pales in comparison with the increases in EA observed in contemporary times). Though they cannot be projected over more than one generation, my results provide additional evidence that humans are still evolving--albeit slowly, especially when compared to the rapid changes that have occurred over the past few generations due to cultural and environmental factors.
Educational attainment is strongly influenced by social and other environmental factors, but genetic factors are estimated to account for at least 20% of the variation across individuals. Here we report the results of a genome-wide association study (GWAS) for educational attainment that extends our earlier discovery sample of 101,069 individuals to 293,723 individuals, and a replication study in an independent sample of 111,349 individuals from the UK Biobank. We identify 74 genome-wide significant loci associated with the number of years of schooling completed. Single-nucleotide polymorphisms associated with educational attainment are disproportionately found in genomic regions regulating gene expression in the fetal brain. Candidate genes are preferentially expressed in neural tissue, especially during the prenatal period, and enriched for biological pathways involved in neural development. Our findings demonstrate that, even for a behavioural phenotype that is mostly environmentally determined, a well-powered GWAS identifies replicable associated genetic variants that suggest biologically relevant pathways. Because educational attainment is measured in large numbers of individuals, it will continue to be useful as a proxy phenotype in efforts to characterize the genetic influences of related phenotypes, including cognition and neuropsychiatric diseases.
Very few genetic variants have been associated with depression and neuroticism, likely because of limitations on sample size in previous studies. Subjective well-being, a phenotype that is genetically correlated with both of these traits, has not yet been studied with genome-wide data. We conducted genome-wide association studies of three phenotypes: subjective well-being (n = 298,420), depressive symptoms (n = 161,460), and neuroticism (n = 170,911). We identify 3 variants associated with subjective well-being, 2 variants associated with depressive symptoms, and 11 variants associated with neuroticism, including 2 inversion polymorphisms. The two loci associated with depressive symptoms replicate in an independent depression sample. Joint analyses that exploit the high genetic correlations between the phenotypes (|ρˆ| ≈ 0.8) strengthen the overall credibility of the findings and allow us to identify additional variants. Across our phenotypes, loci regulating expression in central nervous system and adrenal or pancreas tissues are strongly enriched for association.
A genome-wide association study (GWAS) of educational attainment was conducted in a discovery sample of 101,069 individuals and a replication sample of 25,490. Three independent single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) are genome-wide significant (rs9320913, rs11584700, rs4851266), and all three replicate. Estimated effects sizes are small (coefficient of determination R2 ≈ 0.02%), approximately 1 month of schooling per allele. A linear polygenic score from all measured SNPs accounts for ≈2% of the variance in both educational attainment and cognitive function. Genes in the region of the loci have previously been associated with health, cognitive, and central nervous system phenotypes, and bioinformatics analyses suggest the involvement of the anterior caudate nucleus. These findings provide promising candidate SNPs for follow-up work, and our effect size estimates can anchor power analyses in social-science genetics.
Objectives. We explain why traits of interest to behavioral scientists may have a genetic architecture featuring hundreds or thousands of loci with tiny individual effects rather than a few with large effects and why such an architecture makes it difficult to find robust associations between traits and genes.
Methods. We conducted a genome-wide association study at 2 sites, Harvard University and Union College, measuring more than 100 physical and behavioral traits with a sample size typical of candidate gene studies. We evaluated predictions that alleles with large effect sizes would be rare and most traits of interest to social science are likely characterized by a lack of strong directional selection. We also carried out a theoretical analysis of the genetic architecture of traits based on R.A. Fisher's geometric model of natural selection and empirical analyses of the effects of selection bias and phenotype measurement stability on the results of genetic association studies.
Results. Although we replicated several known genetic associations with physical traits, we found only 2 associations with behavioral traits that met the nominal genome-wide significance threshold, indicating that physical and behavioral traits are mainly affected by numerous genes with small effects.
Conclusions. The challenge for social science genomics is the likelihood that genes are connected to behavioral variation by lengthy, nonlinear, interactive causal chains, and unraveling these chains requires allying with personal genomics to take advantage of the potential for large sample sizes as well as continuing with traditional epidemiological studies.
General intelligence (g) and virtually all other behavioral traits are heritable. Associations between g and specific single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in several candidate genes involved in brain function have been reported. We sought to replicate published associations between g and 12 specific genetic variants (in the genes DTNBP1, CTSD, DRD2, ANKK1, CHRM2, SSADH, COMT, BDNF, CHRNA4, DISC1, APOE, and SNAP25) using data sets from three independent, well-characterized longitudinal studies with samples of 5,571, 1,759, and 2,441 individuals. Of 32 independent tests across all three data sets, only 1 was nominally significant. By contrast, power analyses showed that we should have expected 10 to 15 significant associations, given reasonable assumptions for genotype effect sizes. For positive controls, we confirmed accepted genetic associations for Alzheimer’s disease and body mass index, and we used SNP-based calculations of genetic relatedness to replicate previous estimates that about half of the variance in g is accounted for by common genetic variation among individuals. We conclude that the molecular genetics of psychology and social science requires approaches that go beyond the examination of candidate genes.
This article reviews existing research at the intersection of genetics and economics, presents some new findings that illustrate the state of genoeconomics research, and surveys the prospects of this emerging field. Twin studies suggest that economic outcomes and preferences, once corrected for measurement error, appear to be about as heritable as many medical conditions and personality traits. Consistent with this pattern, we present new evidence on the heritability of permanent income and wealth. Turning to genetic association studies, we survey the main ways that the direct measurement of genetic variation across individuals is likely to contribute to economics, and we outline the challenges that have slowed progress in making these contributions. The most urgent problem facing researchers in this field is that most existing efforts to find associations between genetic variation and economic behavior are based on samples that are too small to ensure adequate statistical power. This has led to many false positives in the literature. We suggest a number of possible strategies to improve and remedy this problem: (a) pooling data sets, (b) using statistical techniques that exploit the greater information content of many genes jointly, and (c) focusing on economically relevant traits that are most proximate to known biological mechanisms.
The costs of comprehensively genotyping human subjects have fallen to the point where major funding bodies, even in the social sciences, are beginning to incorporate genetic and biological markers into major social surveys. How, if at all, should economists use and combine molecular genetic and economic data from these surveys? What challenges arise when analyzing genetically informative data? To illustrate, we present results from a "genome-wide association study" of educational attainment. We use a sample of 7,500 individuals from the Framingham Heart Study; our dataset contains over 360,000 genetic markers per person. We get some initially promising results linking genetic markers to educational attainment, but these fail to replicate in a second large sample of 9,500 people from the Rotterdam Study. Unfortunately such failure is typical in molecular genetic studies of this type, so the example is also cautionary. We discuss a number of methodological challenges that face researchers who use molecular genetics to reliably identify genetic associates of economic traits. Our overall assessment is cautiously optimistic: this new data source has potential in economics. But researchers and consumers of the genoeconomic literature should be wary of the pitfalls, most notably the difficulty of doing reliable inference when faced with multiple hypothesis problems on a scale never before encountered in social science.
Background. Oxytocin (OXT) has been implicated in a suite of complex social behaviors including observed choices in economic laboratory experiments. However, actual studies of associations between oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene variants and experimentally elicited social preferences are rare.
Methodology/Principal Findings. We test hypotheses of associations between social preferences, as measured by behavior in two economic games, and 9 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) of the OXTR gene in a sample of Swedish twins (n = 684). Two standard economic games, the dictator game and the trust game, both involving real monetary consequences, were used to elicit such preferences. After correction for multiple hypothesis testing, we found no significant associations between any of the 9 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and behavior in either of the games.
Conclusion. We were unable to replicate the most significant association reported in previous research between the amount donated in a dictator game and an OXTR genetic variant.
A robust positive correlation between height and intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, has been established in the literature. This paper makes several contributions toward establishing the causes of this association. First, we extend the standard bivariate ACE model to account for assortative mating. The more general theoretical framework provides several key insights, including formulas to decompose a cross-trait genetic correlation into components attributable to assortative mating and pleiotropy and to decompose a cross-trait within-family correlation. Second, we use a large dataset of male twins drawn from Swedish conscription records and examine how well genetic and environmental factors explain the association between (i) height and intelligence and (ii) height and military aptitude, a professional psychogologist’s assessment of a conscript’s ability to deal with wartime stress. For both traits, we find suggestive evidence of a shared genetic architecture with height, but we demonstrate that point estimates are very sensitive to assumed degrees of assortative mating. Third, we report a significant within-family correlation between height and intelligence (ρ̂ =0.10), suggesting that pleiotropy might be at play.