Saving is heritable, but culture matters a lot

By Razib Khan | July 26, 2010 10:58 am

The nature and character of your financial decisions is shaped by your genes. That shouldn’t be too horrible. Many decisions are the outcome of a combination of heritable and non-heritable predispositions. But I have to honestly express a bit of alarm at this segment I just heard on Marketplace, There’s only so much you can teach your kids. Here’s the subhead:

For better or for worse, kids take after their parents — but studies show parental influence only goes so far when it comes to how your children will handle money.

I’m not one to be worried about “genetic determinism” (usually just an insult which describes very few scholars), but this is a bit ridiculous. First, the primary research, of which you can find a pre-print online, seems to indicate that around ~30% of the outcome of financial decisions are heritable. That is, that ~30% of the variation in financial decisions within the population can be accounted for by variation in genes within the population. Additionally, there’s some context missing. The researcher expresses surprise that monozygotic twins converge in behavior as they age, and that parental influence tends to wear off as people leave the home. I don’t know if the researcher was taken out of context, but this is a totally unsurprising result. Over time shared home environment, what your parents model and teach you, tends to wear off, and gene-environment correlation increases the correspondences between particular genetic makeups and behaviors (i.e., identical twins resemble each other more at maturity than in their youth). For most behavioral traits heritability increases with age.

But the problem that microeconomic analyses like this create is that they confuse the public as to the relevance of charts such as this:


That’s the median savings rate in the USA.

There’s not enough time to explain this sort of volatility as the result of changes in gene frequencies. Some of the trends, as the recent increase in savings, have easy contextual explanations. The point is that individual dispositions express themselves within an environmental context, and culture is such an environment. This is why we have to be careful about the high heritabilities of obesity. Your genes may indicate how high your masts are going to be in the flotilla, but the rising and falling of the tide are going to have a huge absolute impact on the position of the whole constellation of ships.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Behavior Genetics

Comments (4)

  1. On the question of how much influence parenting has on children, I don’t think that enough attention is iven to the question “When parents try to influence their kids, how often to they fuck things up or do things which are really ineffectual?”

    Parenting handbooks can confuse the issue because of feedback. For example, suppose that in a naive pool the educational attainment of kids correlates closely with the number of books in the house. Once this is known a certain proportion of parents will stock their houses with books as though they were a magic pill.

    There’s also a question about the uniformity of the pool. If everyone in the pool is an average American living the average American life, the range of variation will be small. If you added a bunch of 19th century aristocrats and high bourgeoisie into the mix, people who are genuinely different and who live very differently, their nurturing (things like hiring nannies to teach a foreign language, or hiring math tutors) would prove to be effective.


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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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