gene for leadership?

 by Mark van Vugt & Anjana Ahuja

Imagine being at an interview for a high-level job, and being asked to provide a syringe of blood, or a cheek swab. It's not to test you for illicit drugs but to analyse your DNA. It's not an improbable scenario:  the search is well and truly on for the genes that confer leadership ability, and other personality traits relevant to business.  And, though it is hazy, a picture is emerging. Immigrant populations, for example, appear to have a slightly genetic make-up to their compatriots back home. Business researcher Scott Shane has even written a book - Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders - detailing the genetic research into leadership.
The most promising "business gene" that researchers are currently studying is the DRD4-gene, and it comes in different versions (it's called a polymorphic gene). Economic games reveal the short version of DRD4 to be associated with altruism, conscientiousness, and fairness - these are typical manager traits - while the long version is associated with novelty seeking, risk-taking and impulsiveness (this version has recently been linked to ADHD). The risk-taking version is more prevalent in countries which have experienced mass human migrations in the past.*
These two versions might be adaptive in different environments. A landmark study conducted by anthropologists in Kenya in 2008 showed that people with the long version fare particularly well in nomadic tribes, while among the settled tribes the people possessing the short gene version were healthier and better nourished.

It is not difficult to see why. Nomads have to constantly search for food and shelter, so it pays to have a curious personality and an entrepreneurial spirit (particularly true for nomadic leaders).  In settled communities where resources are plenty, however, once can afford to be more social and sharing. Hence, leaders who are fair and generous should do better here . In other words, the long version is associated with being an entrepreneur, and the short version with being a competent manager.
 These  "gene- environment" interactions are fascinating because they reveal information about the context under which each version thrives (and the circumstances under which they may have been selected for in our ancestral world). Researchers are currently looking at interactions between DRD4 and such factors as season of birth, gender and social class.**

For instance, if you have the long version and grow up in a poor and dangerous environment, your penchant for taking risks might get you killed but if you were raised in a safe and supportive environment you might become an entrepreneur.
These findings may have interesting implications for both business and politics. At times of stability, nations and businesses look kindly on good managers who favour the status quo, boding well for people with the short DRD4 variant. But if countries or companies need to alter course, perhaps the long DRD4 person offers a better opportunity for change and renewal. Oh, and if you don't want to be taken by surprise at an interview, you can find out if you're "short" or "long" by getting yourself genotyped.

* Matthews, L.J. and Butler, P.M. (2011) Novelty-seeking DRD4 polymorphisms are associated with human migration distance out-of-Africa after controlling for neutral population gene structure. American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

** Zhong, S. et al. (2010). Dopamine D4 Receptor gene associated with fairness in preference in an ultimatum game. PLoS-ONE

About the Author

Mark van Vugt, Ph.D.

Mark van Vugt, Ph.D., is a professor of social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University.

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