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Risk Written on Their Faces

Harvard researchers: Blame stock market meltdown on too much testosterone.

Shannon Rupp 17 Oct

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

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Heavy-browed high roller Conrad Black.

When it comes to determining how much of a financial risk-taker a man is, don't look him in the eye, look him in the jaw. Is your financial planner a ringer for Arnold? Does he have a jaw like Viggo?

On further examination, does he have a heavy or "low" brow like Moe, on the Simpsons? Throw in thin lips a la Bruce Willis and as the relatively full-lipped Robert Preston sang, "Ya got Trouble."

Ignore those innocent baby blues: a man's attitude to risk is bred in the bone, which reflects how much testosterone courses through his body. The more he has, the more likely he is to take risks with his money. Or yours.

Or so Harvard researchers report in the science journal Evolution and Human Behaviour.

Economist Anna Dreber and anthropologist Coren Apicella theorize that Wall Street's red-suspendered boys -- or as I think of them, the greedy architects of the new recession -- can't help themselves because they have more testosterone than average, which makes them take big risks to earn big prizes. That's an advantage when chasing woolly mammoths with wooden spears, but it's likely to cause problems in money management.

The scientific findings

Apparently, the rules for rational investing can't counter that evolutionary urge to risk it all on a death-defying feat (with your RRSP). To determine this, the study tested the hormone levels of 100 young men and then gave them $250 and told them they could keep it, invest part of it, or invest it all -- on a coin toss.

Those with testosterone poisoning (not the technical term) invested 12 per cent more than men with average hormone levels. And a man's testosterone levels are written on his face.

The influence of testosterone on facial features is linked to high hormone levels in adolescence, the same point at which men develop their attitudes to risk. Those with exaggerated masculine features -- commonly called "strong" faces -- are inclined to take long shots, which is likely to pay-off in some careers such as sports, movie or rock star. But That Guy is not who you want brokering international peace treaties or running your bank.

With these new findings I'm happy to reconsider my observation that too many men do too much of their thinking with the little head. Turns out that, for some men, the boys are also involved in an unholy trinity replacing rational thought.

Considering the implications

Of course, I'm itching to extrapolate on these findings. But before speculating on how soon corporate criminals will be using the testosterone defence -- maybe the heavy-browed, thin-lipped Conrad Black could appeal? -- let's consider the implications for modern life.

In evolutionary terms, the risk-takers were selected because their actions gave them some success at dipping in the gene pool and keeping their progeny alive. Although, with mammoth-tackling being what it is, it's fair to say that those ancient daredevils probably did more to ensure the survival of their slightly savvier tribe-mates who hung back, took calculated risks, and passed on what is now the average testosterone level. Let's face it, taking point against a one-ton quarry isn't conducive to long life and big families.

So our successful evolution as a species is probably the result of just enough practitioners of hormone-driven irrational acts to provide us with some regular protein. Which makes sense. Until recently, it was obvious that the daring of the few could benefit the majority.

Think about the origins of Canada. Only some sort of madness could explain why men ventured across the Atlantic in tiny boats and settled in inhospitable places like Quebec and Ontario. Imagine what that -40 (with the wind chill) would have felt like sans central heating, Gore-Tex, and Sorrels. Spend one winter in Montreal (contemplating who in his right mind would have settled here in the 17th century) and the community benefits of having had ancestors with a crazy disregard for the downside of risk is obvious.

Today's big-jawed elite

But what happens to the guys with (let's call it Excess Testosterone Effect) in the 21st century, where there's very little call for suicidal risk-taking? Extreme sports and drunk driving will only take out so many of these adventurers. The rest will be hanging around well into their 50s, pushing the limits and loosening regulations on hazardous behaviour in the places like corporate business and politics, where the rewards are mammoth-sized.

Ironically, the relative safety of the modern world has up-ended natural selection turning characteristics that, until recently, were benefiting the species into ones likely to threaten our survival.

The Harvard researchers drew a parallel with Wall Street risk-takers -- a little too late, I'd say, given the credit crisis, failing banks and collapsing markets.

Just think of the impact these heavy-jawed types have on every aspect of our lives.

For example, would anyone who knew about the Excess Testosterone Effect have voted Stephen Harper back in charge of the country?

He may be talking about the steady hand on the economy, but just look at that thick, square jaw (albeit disguised in jowls). His brow is heavy, and the lips are so thin they disappear when he smiles -- on the face of it, he's one of the guys who has out-lived his date with a mammoth.

We got a glimpse of those risk-taking tendencies when he suggested that Canadians stop whining about the stock market crash and start picking up the good buys. His infamous "Let them buy stock," line earned him a rep as Canada's answer to Marie Antoinette, but apparently the people who can spot a PM with a gambling habit don't vote.

The weak-chinned socially responsible

Call me, er, jaw-ndiced, but I can't help but recall Harper's position on healthcare, re-criminalizing abortion and keeping the troops in Afghanistan -- his choices are all risky and life-threatening although, sadly, not for him.

Harper's environmental policies, or lack thereof, take a chance that more than 90 per cent of scientists are wrong and the oil-patch-funding Conservative campaigns won't put the whole species at risk. Of course, Conservatives aren't good at separating scientific theories from myths -- never forget these people think humans and dinosaurs capered together in a Fred Flintstone version of Eden only 6,000 years ago and that vision colours every idea they have about science. Even so, Harper's willingness to take an outrageous risk with everyone's life because it gives him a big reward, seems extreme.

Feel free to apply the Excess Testosterone Effect theory to assessing the man of your choice. Alas, there is no comparable test for female candidates, as women's more complex biology doesn't allow for as delightfully obvious an equation as "extreme masculinity = irrationality."

Besides, voters looking to make snap judgments about women candidates already have the "Is she hot?" test, although its merits have come into question since Sarah Palin's embarrassing rise to prominence.

This new-found connection between excess testosterone and risk-taking has left me wary of all men who appear "strong," but I think it's especially relevant for picking politicians. Now I recall that old Red Tory Joe Clark's weak chin as fondly as his sense of social responsibility. I feel nostalgia for that time when a politician's intellectual brilliance inspired Trudeau-mania, not contempt.

But most of all I wonder how long it will take this science to reach voters and show them that male politicians trading on an appearance of strength are actually the guys who, in evolutionary terms, have outlived their usefulness.

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© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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