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24 Oct 2011

Correlation: High Testosterone and Poor Risk Assessment

When I’ve written about the illusion of free will, I’ve focused on the advancement of technology and research methodologies to uncover subconscious thought patterns. However, these advancements are also discovering a connection between chemical reactions and some of our emotions.

In the September 24, 2011 issue of The Economist, the article, “Rogue Hormones,” reports on the research of John Coates, a  neuroscientist from Cambridge University. His research of derivative traders showed that when they “are on a winning streak their testosterone levels surge, sparking such euphoria that they underestimate risk.” This biochemical process produces extremely “powerful emotions” encouraging traders to “go crazy.”

This helps to explain why we often learn more from our failures than our successes and why success can deliver us to a state of hubris, an exalted arrogance that can corrupt our decision-making processes. Such biochemical processes help explain why such exuberance can infect many people to think and act similarly without communicating with each other while each is believing he is responding of his own free will. Thus, such events as financial bubbles and housing bubbles can occur on a broad scale.

A way to mitigate this effect is to diversify your workforce to include many types of personalities in decision-making positions. For instance, the article concluded that hiring women, who generally have about 10% as much testosterone as men, could help offset “irrational exuberance.” Experience can also help especially if it contains crises brought about by excessive risk taking. Moreover, even from strictly a gender perspective, not all men will experience the same increases in testosterone levels from success making them prone to erroneous risk assessments.

Of course, it’s not easy to manage a diverse workforce.


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