Wall Street's Winners May Be Determined While They're Still in the Womb

By Eliza Strickland | January 13, 2009 9:57 am

day tradersMen who want to know if they’d make it as day traders on Wall Street just have to look down at the fingers, according to a new study. The longer their ring fingers are in relation to their pointer fingers, the more likely they are to have what it takes to make millions on the trading floor. Previous research has found that the digit ratio reflects how much testosterone an unborn baby was exposed to in the womb. Those exposed to high levels of the hormone are more sensitive as adults to testosterone that creates feelings of confidence and encourages risk-taking, said study author John Coates [Bloomberg].

Coates has previously shown that traders who register the highest levels of testosterone in the morning make the most money through the course of the day, and this new study adds to the earlier work by suggesting that their advantage may have been innate, not learned. Although it may come as no surprise that testosterone could be a big player in the mano-a-mano world of Wall Street, the research offers the best evidence yet of the hormone’s role in determining which would-be Masters of the Universe will thrive. It also supports the growing recognition that biology plays a role in complex human behaviors, and that financial choices in particular are often less rational than economists appreciated [Washington Post].

Coates had heard of research indicating that men with longer ring fingers had more aptitude for sports. So “for a lark,” Coates says, he decided to take handprints of 44 of the young male traders he studied, all of whom worked on a fast-paced London trading floor. Coates’s hunch paid off. In the new study … his team found that traders with the lowest index-to-ring-finger ratios (i.e., those exposed to more testosterone before birth) made the most money over a 20-month period, even when the researchers controlled for years of experience. They averaged the equivalent of $1,232,590, nearly six times more than that of men with high ratios. “I almost fell off my chair,” says Coates [ScienceNOW Daily News].

The findings, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [subscription required], shouldn’t cause Wall Street recruiters to scrutinize the hands of applicants, Coates says. “Population statistics such as ours give average effects over a population but can be tricky when applied to individuals,” he said. The next stage in the Cambridge research will be to look at other types of financial trading. “When it comes to long-run investments, we may well find that successful individuals have higher, more feminine digit ratios,” he said [Financial Times].

Related Content:
80beats: Men With High Testosterone Levels Make Riskier Financial Decisions
DISCOVER: Testosterone Rules has more on what the hormone does to the human male

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/ Uncle Al

    1) What proportion of Wall Street traders are genetic females?
    2) If it is not a fair 60/40 female/male there must be Federal regulation. Ditto race, other-ablement, morbid obesity, and addiction.
    3) We must redirect all our resources that the bottom 30% will be Officially more than competitive with the top 10%, like $6 billion/year Head Start not $5 billion/year NSF.
    4) Diversity assures those without credentials are the most qualified, by law.
    5) Note the conclusion of the cited article.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ Uncle Al:

    I don’t know what proportion of all day traders is female, but I do know the statistics from the bank that Coates worked with for this study. The Financial Times reported that the unnamed bank “employs about 200 men on its high-frequency trading floor – and just three women.”

  • Jayson o.

    i think this article is a very interesting article about wall street

  • codylicious

    I think there is no way you can determine the sucsess of a person by studying there digits. Things like childhood, home life, personality, and physical appearence contribute to sucess.

  • Elizabeth, V.

    So because of this discovery, are men trying to get a job at wall street going to have index-to-ring-finger ratio inspections?? Only people with long ring fingers can work on wall street?? Even if men should not be scrutinized, because of this. They may still be, due to this article.

  • tatayana r.

    THIS ARTICLE MAKES PERFECT SENSE, I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE SAYING.

  • Dap J

    So basicly what they are saying is that the index finger and the middle finger(ring finger) helps them make money or that people who use those fingers are used to it or have a better testosterone or something really i don’t understand this at all i am only a 10th grader

  • Shawntia R

    I really dont understand this article im only 16 what do you expect im confused.

  • http://discovermagazine Jeremy

    tHIS ARTICLE MAKES PERFECT SENSE, I TOTALLY GET WHAT ITS SAYING

  • catherine T

    but how are they able to test in the womb of you are able to be on wall street?

  • Jumblepudding

    Is this site’s reply system being attacked by high schoolers trying to get extra credit? God bless American education. At any rate, I’m sure they’d find a low ratio in prisons as well because of higher testosterone among criminals. The trick is to rehabilitate lower-level offenders as day traders.

  • Geetha

    So the finger feeds on the (mother’s) testosterone? Does it say something about the mother on those days then? I didn’t know the baby’s day-to-day testosterone capacity depended on the mother’s level for those months. I thoght palmistry and astrology were for the bored, but now Discovery is as well!

  • Evelyn

    “Population statistics such as ours give average effects over a population but can be tricky when applied to individuals.” Really? The sample was only 44 individuals, and the results were rather stunning. So either the sample is too small and doesn’t mean much, or the sample is adequate and you can predict quite a bit about any given individual based on their testosterone-sensitivity.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ Jumblepudding:

    We have indeed had an influx of students in these past hours. Hello to you all in Greenville, South Carolina!

  • Annie

    I take biology in college so I would like to clarify Geetha’s disbelief. The finger does not feed on the mother’s testosterone. What is meant is that finger length is determined by the level of testosterone in the womb(it is not clear in the article if it is provided by the mother or produced by the baby himself). The level of hormones does affect growth, proportion and size (just look at the steriods SOME atheletes take). In any case, this study is statistically too small to be credible science. Just had a diabolical thought. If this really turn out to be true, would pregnant mothers take testosterone as a pregnancy supplement so their sons will all be successful risk-taking Wall Street high frequency traders? Or if you want a calm son to become a trader for long term investment, you would opt for a bit of testosterone antagonist or even oestrogen?

  • Mona

    I am not a trader, but I am a girlie girl (45 yr. old woman, mother of 3)- who wonders how much testosterone I was exposed to – since my ring and pointer fingers are almost identical in length! Maybe there is some other genetic link to finger length and being a risk taker and confident person.

  • Bob Snyder

    I understand that the article is merely trying to point to a correlation between risk-takers and exposure to higher hormonal levels while in the womb but I feel that it was a bit of a stretch to link it to Wall St. day traders and success. If the 20 month period of the study was during a mostly bull market it would follow that riskier traders make more money. However, in bear markets they will probably lose more money than long term investors. The expected return of an investment is a product of the risk in the investment. Most traders do not beat the market, and by most i mean nearly all. Without going into too much detail, the study should have taken into consideration the riskiness of the investments by adjusting for the betas of the relative portfolios of the traders. I would like to know how all of those risk takers fared during the collapse of global markets in the past year, my guess is that they lost a proportional amount of money, as in 6x more than those less risky investors.

  • Bob Snyder

    After reading the original articles, it seems plausible that higher levels of testosterone could lead to higher success because “The researchers studied 44 male traders in London involved in “high-frequency” or “noise” trading, which requires intensely scanning economic data to make very fast trades involving large amounts of money.” (Washington Post) For these types of traders, hesitation is not an option and greater sensitivity to testosterone would most likely be an asset as the article suggests.

    “Noise trading is a compulsive / hyperactive buying and selling activity in financial markets, done in the absence of meaningful new information.” This is not applicable to most institutional traders, hedge/mutual fund managers, etc. The study admittedly pertains to only 1 type of trader in an irrational environment. The “herd mentality” is often used to describe such traders as well as “irrational exuberance” which leads to a disconnect between market fundamentals and actual prices. Basically, rational decision making is not a prerequisite for this job. Coates knows this when he says “it is important to note that this study focuses on only one type of trading, and increased confidence and quick reactions may in fact be a hindrance to those trading over long periods of time.” I feel as if the author, Eliza, should have mentioned this as some people may be under the impression that it applies to all investors in general.

    Also worth noting:
    The 20 month period was between 2004 and 2007. Assuming they started June 1, 2004 (4422.7) – Feb 1, 2007 (6282.2), the Annual Percentage Return for FTSE 100 (The UK equivalent of the S&P) was about 25%. FTSE 100 and the S&P had a strikingly similar trend as well. However, for the purpose of “noise traders” this would not matter much as their returns are dependent on the volatility of the market and not so much the direction.

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