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Understanding what makes people spend more than what they possess is a crucial input to tackle credit debt, which was one of the factors contributing to the current economic crisis. Usually we tend to focus on personality of the debtors or on sociological factors that govern a society. However there may be another explanation, a biological one: it’s possible that our genes may affect our financial behavior.

Earlier work has shown that genetics plays a role in how we handle money. But a recent study was the first to show that a particular gene affects financial behavior outside the lab. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and the London School of Economics looked at genetic data and questionnaires already collected from more than 2,000 young adults aged 18 to 26 as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. In particular, they looked at whether these young adults said they had any credit-card debt and what version of the MAOA gene they had.

Monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) is an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters (signal¬ing chemicals) in the brain. Previous studies have linked the low-efficiency versions of the MAOA gene—the variants that cause less MAOA to be produced by brain cells—to impulsiveness.

This is an excerpt of a Scientific American Mind that you can read here.