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The Genetics of Job Choice

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The aspects of work we prefer, our level of job satisfaction, our willingness to change jobs, and even our tendency to start our own businesses are all influenced by our genes.

If you are like most people, you probably recognize intuitively that your genes—the DNA that makes you who you are—have some effect on what you do for a living. At the most basic level, you probably believe that height is important to becoming a professional basketball player, and you might even blame yours for the fact that you don’t currently play for the New York Knicks. Since you probably remember enough high school biology to recognize that your genes affect how tall you are, you probably have a gut sense that your DNA is at least partially responsible for your failure to get drafted into the National Basketball Association. And unless you are among the few supermodels reading this article, you might have even cursed (maybe just once or twice) your parents for the genes that kept you from that modeling career. In fact, you may even think that genetics has something to do with the business success of your annoying brother-in-law—the one all the relatives refer to as a “born entrepreneur.”

Though you probably recognize at some level that your genes affect your work life, you probably haven’t thought about the myriad influences that your genes have on your job choice, satisfaction with that job, and your willingness to change it.

Because our genes have a strong effect on our preference for autonomy, some individuals may be more inclined than others to quit their jobs and start their own companies.

Way back in 1932, Harold Carter found statistical evidence that whether people want to become doctors, commodities traders, ranchers, firemen, automobile salesmen, or any number of other occupations, has a genetic component; identical twins are attracted to more similar jobs than fraternal twins, even than same-sex fraternal twins. Subsequent research has shown that genes affect fairly specific dimensions of job preferences. For instance, a study by University of Minnesota psychologist Tom Bouchard and his colleagues showed that 21 percent of the difference between people in their interest in law enforcement is genetic, while Deborah Betsworth and Bouchard found that genes explain about 46 percent of the difference between people in their interest in "academic comfort."

Although genetic effects exist for specific job preferences, they tend to be stronger for broader categories that represent the major skills and activities involved in those positions. For instance, a study by David Lykken and his colleagues showed that 32 percent of the difference between people with respect to their responses about occupational interests—for instance, whether you like carpentry, or buying and selling, or public speaking—are genetic. But 53 percent of categories of interests, such as preference for adventurous work, intellectual work, or agrarian work, is hereditary.

Even the preferences for jobs shown by the very vocational assessments that experts use to figure out what jobs people are best suited for have a genetic component. Studies of twins and adopted children show that genetics accounts for between 21 and 44 percent of the variation between people in the scales of the Strong Vocational Interest Bank, a tool used by vocational experts to evaluate what jobs are right for people.

Though you probably recognize that your genes affect your work life, you probably haven’t thought about the myriad influences genes have on your job choice, job satisfaction, and your willingness to switch jobs.

The genetic effect on job preferences is true for business positions just as it is for other jobs. According to research by Bouchard and his colleagues, identical twins, whether raised together or apart, tend to display more similar levels of interest in business jobs than their fraternal counterparts. In fact, the rate at which identical twins raised apart express a common preference is higher than that for fraternal twins who grow up together, with fraternal twins raised separately having almost no similarity of interest in working in the business world.

Like the character Michael Scott on the hit TV show “The Office,” many business people daily supervise others. Amazingly, your interest in this kind of work is more heavily influenced by your genetic endowment than by how your mom and dad raised you. A study by Betsworth and Bouchard found that about 25 percent of the variation in interest in managing people is attributable to genes, while family environment accounts for only 8 percent of this interest.

Genetics affects interest in other types of business jobs as well. Betsworth and Bouchard also found that genetics accounted for 29 percent of the difference in people's interest in merchandising and 19 percent of the difference in their interest in sales. Daniel Maloney and his collaborators found that genetics accounted for 36 percent of the difference in people's interest in finance.

What about being happy with these jobs, once we have them? A study by Richard Arvey and his collaborators showed that genetics account for 30 percent of the difference between people in overall job satisfaction, with genetics affecting both the satisfaction that comes from the nature of the work itself, and happiness with the context in which the work is done, such as the conditions of the workplace, the pay that a person receives, or the kind of boss that they have. Moreover, genetic effects on our workplace satisfaction are present across a wide variety of jobs, from office work to physical labor.

You might even blame your genes for the fact that you don’t currently play for the New York Knicks.

According to work by Remus Ilies and his colleagues, our genes also affect how happy we are with different aspects of our jobs, from our perceptions of our chances for advancement to how we perceive our chances for advancement to importance of different job criteria, such as level of pay, how interesting the work is, or the amount of job security.

And if we are unhappy with our jobs, our genes affect our willingness to do something about it. Work by Brian McCall and his colleagues shows that 36 percent of the difference between people in the frequency of actual job changes is accounted for by our genetic makeup. Even the tendency to be a “job hopper,” quitting a position every couple of years to find a new one, has a genetic component. According to John Loehlin and his collaborators, 56 percent of the difference in people’s descriptions of their job histories as “stable” or “changing” comes from their genes.

In fact, it’s not just changing companies within an industry that your genes influence, it’s also changing occupations. The work of McCall and his colleagues show that 26 percent of the difference between people in occupational change (e.g., shifting from being a doctor to being a lawyer, or from being a manager to being a teacher) is genetic.

Identical twins are attracted to more similar jobs than fraternal twins, even same-sex fraternal twins.

Our genes might even explain whether or not we quit our jobs to go into business for ourselves, perhaps by influencing our preference for autonomy. Studies show that the desire to have more autonomy at work is a key factor motivating many people to start their own companies. In fact, a study by Andrew Burke and colleagues showed that agreement with the statement “being my own boss is vital in choosing a job” increases the odds that a person will be self-employed ten years later, while accord with the phrase “job security is most vital in choosing a job” reduces the chances that a person will be self-employed a decade hence. Because our genes have a strong effect on our preference for autonomy, some individuals may be more inclined than others to quit their jobs and start their own companies because of genetic variation that predisposes them towards work autonomy and away from job security. After all, as I have shown in my own research, genetic differences affect the odds that people will go into business for themselves.

Our view of work isn’t just something we learn. The aspects of work we prefer, our level of job satisfaction, our willingness to change jobs, and even our tendency to start our own businesses all are influenced by our genetic makeup.

Of course, your genetic makeup doesn’t guarantee that you will prefer certain types of occupations, have high job satisfaction, change positions infrequently, or start companies. After all, genes don’t determine anything about your work-related behavior; they just influence it. You can easily prefer certain occupations, be satisfied with your job, have high job stability, or become an entrepreneur whether you have the relevant genetic predispositions or not. The odds are just greater for the genetically inclined than for the rest of us.

Scott Shane is the A. Malachi Mixon III Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Case Western Reserve University. This article was adapted from the author’s recently released book from Oxford University Press, Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Your Genes Affect Your Work Life.

FURTHER READING: Shane has also written “From Start-up to Stop: The Recession and Entrepreneurship” and “Will Small Businesses Stop Offering Health Insurance If Reform Passes?” The American Enterprise Institute’s Alan Viard and Amy Roden discuss “Big Business: The Other Engine of Economic Growth.” Watch and listen to speakers discuss “Genes, Neuroscience, and Free Will” at an AEI conference last April.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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