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'Credit card debt? It's in my genes (but don't tell the bank)'

Some people have a genetic bias toward running up credit card debt a new academic study has discovered.

The researchers found that those of us with an inefficient version of a gene previously linked to impulsive and addictive behaviour are significantly more likely to have overspent on credit cards. 

And the authors, whose work is revealed in the new LSE Research magazine published today, argue that since about half of the population carry the inefficient gene there may be a need to protect them by law from genetic discrimination.

LSE Research cover imageThe study was carried out by Jan-Emmanuel De Neve from the London School of Economics and Political Science and James Fowler of the University of California. They looked at a sample of 2,500 people, aged from 18 to 26 to see which of them had credit card debts. At the same time, they examined the data for each person to see if they also carried a 'low efficiency' version of the gene known as MAOA.

The results were stark – people with the transcriptionally  'inefficient' version of the gene were on average between eight and 16 per cent more likely to admit being in the red on their credit cards. 

The MAOA gene is linked to the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline, which, among other things, control mood, heart rate and cognitive ability. How efficient the gene is at controlling production of an enzyme that degrades neurotransmitters, part of a natural cellular cycle in the brain, influences the chances of someone being impulsive and prone to addiction.

The gene has both high efficiency and low efficiency variations (or alleles), and since we get genetic material from both parents it is possible to have one low or two low alleles. The study found an average increase in debt reporting of eight per cent for those with one low and 16 per cent with two.

Jan-Emmanuel De Neve said: 'It's clear from our data that having this inefficient gene, which partly governs our impulses, is significantly associated with getting into credit card debt. Of course, it isn't the only factor – our environment, other genes and the interaction between them will also play their part – but it's clearly a significant one.

'About half the people in our sample carried this debt-correlated gene and because it was representative that suggests half the population does. This raises serious policy questions because it would be possible to do a simple genetic test – on hair or saliva – to see if someone has a higher risk of getting into debt. 

'So a bank or credit leader could use that information to decipher your genetic information before deciding whether to lend to you or to charge you an extra premium. That's why we suggest governments should introduce legislation to outlaw all acts of genetic discrimination.' 

The full paper, The MOAO Gene Predicts Credit Card Debt, by Jan-Emmanuel De Neve (PhD candidate at LSE) and James H. Fowler (Professor at the University of California) is available on request. 

Its findings, and an interview with Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, appear in the first edition of LSE Research, a new magazine which features ground-breaking research work and its implications for policy to a targeted audience in politics, government, the media and commerce.  

The magazine is also available online here

It is edited by experienced journalist Stryker McGuire, contributing editor of Newsweek, who said: 'Stories like this study of credit card debt are what we'll be featuring – things that are not just fascinating for what they reveal but which have important implications for the world at large. Academic research at LSE is rich and deep and the magazine will serve up the best of it to benefit anyone who cares about society.'


For more information contact LSE Press Office on 020 7955 7060 or email Pressoffice@lse.ac.uk

19 March 2010