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Genetics of Risk Tolerance

A strand of DNA walking a tight rope, with a city skyline pictured below the tight rope. The text reads: Do genetics determine risk-taking behaviour?

Written by Alexandra Nitoiu
Illustrated by Amy Jiao

Are you the kind of person who takes risks? Chances are, you’ve considered this question before, and might think you’re relatively set in your ways as a risk-taker or otherwise. But is there a way to tell whether someone is more or less prone to taking risks?

Well, a study led by U of T economist and geneticist Jonathan Beauchamp has identified up to 124 genetic variants that are associated with overall risk tolerance. To find these variants, the researchers performed a genome-wide association study (GWAS) to pinpoint SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) which are DNA sequence variations where a single nucleotide (A, T, C, or G) is changed. The study examined over 1 million people with European ancestries, and used self-reported surveys asking about risky behaviour such as speeding, portfolio allocation, occupational choice, smoking, alcohol consumption, and starting one’s own business.

BUT, when all these SNPs are added together, they would only explain 1.6% of the variation seen across individuals in terms of general risk tolerance. The authors make it clear that other non-genetic factors like sex, age and life experience have much more of an effect on the variation in risk tolerance. The study also failed to find evidence supporting the existence of biological pathways which have previously been hypothesized to affect risk tolerance. However, bioinformatics analyses of the study’s results found certain regions of the brain previously identified as being involved in decision-making are also involved in modulating risk tolerance.

So, even if you possess every SNP associated with increased risk tolerance, you will not necessarily be a risk-taker. Since these environmental and non-genetic factors are still the most important determinants of risk-taking, it is possible for you to change your ways. But no matter how you look at it, there is no direct link between genetics and risk tolerance. Whether you consider yourself a risk-taker or not, your genes have played only a very minor role in determining it.


  2. Karlsson Linnér, R.; Biroli, P.; Kong, E.; Meddens, S. F. W.; Wedow, R.; Fontana, M. A.; Lebreton, M.; Tino, S. P.; Abdellaoui, A.; Hammerschlag, A. R.; et al. Genome-Wide Association Analyses of Risk Tolerance and Risky Behaviors in over 1 Million Individuals Identify Hundreds of Loci and Shared Genetic Influences. Nat. Genet. 2019, 51 (2), 245–257.