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Interview with Philipp Koellinger, professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation

Photo: Jeroen Oerlemans

At the age of 15, Matthew is a typical teenage boy. He loves football, enjoys hanging out with his friends and has recently become acutely aware of the opposite sex. Like his mom, he has blue eyes and brown hair, and like his dad, his is a mild-mannered, patient nature. Nevertheless, there is one aspect of Matthew’s character with no clear antecedent: Matthew, for some inexplicable reason, has an uncanny talent for business. While his mates spend their days sprawled on the couch playing Grand Theft Auto and eating leftover pizza, Matthew uses his spare time to manage his impressive stock portfolio, employ such words as ‘benchmarking’ and ‘amortisation’ in casual conversation, and prepare the launch of his online design company in seven different countries. When 15-year-old Matthew turns 30, he plans to buy a holiday retreat in Bermuda and just soak up the good life.

Although a fictional character, Matthew’s entrepreneurial spirit and financial prowess touch on one of society’s most enduring questions about the nature of the human primate: are our traits and behavioural predispositions the result of genetic hardwiring, or are we indeed simply products of our environment?

According to Philipp Koellinger, professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Amsterdam, the answer to this question is as complex, as it is elusive. After years of exploring the effect of genes, cognitive limitations and emotions on economic behaviour, Koellinger shies away from a purely biological explanation, stressing instead the manifold endogenous and exogenous elements that shape human behaviour. In this month’s UvA in the Spotlight, we speak to Koellinger about habits, traits and the possible existence of the ‘entrepreneurial’ gene.

As an economist and researcher, you are particularly interested in the influence of genes and emotions on economic behaviour. What exactly have you managed to uncover while researching these issues?

The main thrust of my research is on exploring the connection between molecular genetics and human behaviour. Together with other researchers, I focus on issues that are of interest to social scientists, such as education, occupational choice and happiness. Studies have shown that a lot of these things are partially heritable, but until now very little has been known about the molecular architecture underlying heritability. In my research, I have tried to uncover whether it is possible to identify these genes, and if so, whether they might be able to teach us anything.

In doing so, I have encountered many extreme and differing opinions on the existence of genes and their influence on behaviour. There are a number of people, especially in the medical world, who thought it totally impossible to identify genes that are so robustly associated with complex behaviour, and were downright sceptical of any attempt to map such genes. At the other end of the spectrum are social scientists who think it plausible to assume that a few genes have large effects on behaviours such as education or occupational choice. Rigorous empirical research is the only way to know which of the two views is more accurate.

It turns out that the medicos’ assessment was the more accurate of the two. It is extremely difficult to identify the genes that are responsible for complex behaviour. As a social scientist, I’m interested in traits that are genetically complex, in other words that are heritable, but whose heritability is influenced by hundreds or thousands of genes. Because these genes have such a tiny influence on heritability, it is almost impossible to identify them. Nevertheless, my research partners and I were able to identify some of the genes relating to educational attainment in a study involving 100 000 individuals. This study turned out to be quite revealing, and taught us a lot of interesting things about the underlying biology. We uncovered many intriguing links between education and medical phenotypes such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.   

Do you think genes play a dominant role in determining complex behaviour, and that there is such a thing as an ‘entrepreneurial gene’?

Any type of behaviour results from a complex interplay between genetic factors and the environment around us. Heritability estimates tell us how important genetic factors are ultimately, taking all possible pathways into account, including the self-selection of people into specific environments due to genetic predisposition. Typically, heritability estimates for complex behaviours are below 50%. For the behavioural traits that are of interest to economists and business researchers, the range is typically between 10 and 40%. And even if heritability estimates would be 100%, it would not mean that the environment or the choices we make are irrelevant. For example, if short-sightedness would be 100% heritable, we could still choose to wear glasses, and it would matter if the environment we live in would give us that option.

Our studies on the genetic architecture of self-employment did not find any specific gene yet that is consistently linked to occupational choice, although we combined many large samples to boost our statistical power. Thus, we have high confidence when we say that there is no such thing as “the one entrepreneurial gene”. If there would be, we would have already found it. Nevertheless, all genes combined can parse to some extent between people who are self-employed and those who are not – it just turns out to be very challenging to pinpoint the specific genes with their tiny, possibly environment-specific effects. Thus, many worries that people may have about genetics and human behaviour are alleviated when you look at the actual evidence.

What is the social relevance of research such as yours?

This might sound surprising, but if one could understand if and how biology influences behavioural predispositions and outcomes, that knowledge could in turn be used to get a firmer grasp of the way our environment influences our actions. Research such as ours is also important because it addresses fundamental questions about human nature: what makes us human? What makes us different from one another? Who and what exactly are we?

Our research has also led to some unexpected findings, such as the strong links between the genes that influence behaviour and a number of medical outcomes. In one of our most recent studies on educational attainment, we identified a number of biological mechanisms which turned out to be involved in cognitive health in the elderly. These mechanisms might in future help doctors and researchers gain a better understanding of the genetic structure underlying mental health and cognitive decline.

Philipp Koellinger's personal webpage