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Do Genetics Influence Your Credit Score?

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There is the standard list of factors that influence your credit score: payment history, outstanding balances, the types of credit that you use and so on. But what you probably don’t realize is that your genes may also play an important role. Yes, your biological wiring might make you more likely to be more risk-seeking and take on more debt, which could lead to a lower FICO score.

I came across this intriguing discovery while researching my book Coined: The Rich Life of Money And How Its History Has Shaped Us. I wrote the book because I was working at a Wall Street investment bank during the credit crisis, and I wanted to know what leads people to make bad decisions with money. I learned that there are many things that guide our financial decisions, including our genes.

To understand how genes could sway our decisions, I asked a neuroeconomist. Neuroeconomics is an emerging and interdisciplinary field in which brain scans and other technologies are used to understand how we make financial decisions. Brian Knutson, a neuroeconomist at Stanford University, explained a study that he conducted with two colleagues, Camelia Kuhnen and Gregory Samanez-Larkin, on the link between our genes, financial decisions and even life outcomes.

They started with the multi-part question, “Do genes influence cognitive abilities, do they shape the way people learn in financial markets, or do they determine risk attitudes?” They concentrated on a gene known as 5-HTTLPR because it had been identified in previous studies as playing a role in how we make financial decisions. Specifically, they wanted to know whether there was causation between people who have a variant of this gene, possessing a short or long allele, and their financial outcome.

In the trial, they selected 60 individuals from San Francisco to participate. The participants shared demographic information such as their age, marital status and ethnicity. They also provided personal financial information such as their occupation, income level and debts. Some participants also disclosed their FICO scores. All participants had their DNA collected via cheek swabs for an analysis of whether they possessed the short or long alleles. Participants were then presented a series of financial decisions like how to allocate $10,000 across stocks, bonds and cash.

It turned out that those with short alleles made more conservative financial decisions than those with long alleles. Participants with short alleles allocated less money in equities and more in low-performing assets like cash. Moreover, in real life these participants had fewer lines of credit than the others. Those with two short alleles had higher FICO scores, some 93 points, than those with a long allele. FICO scores typically range between 300 and 850, so a swing of 93 points, or 17%, is statistically noteworthy.

Before concluding that genes were the reason for the variance in behavior, the researchers considered other possible factors: income, wealth and financial literacy. But they didn’t find that any of these things were meaningful in explaining the outcome of their study. Ultimately, they settled, “Overall, these results indicate that individual variation in the 5-HTTLPR genotype influences financial choice.”

Their conclusion is in line with other academic studies that find there are genetic determinants for financial decisions. For example, researchers compared the investment portfolios of fraternal and identical twins. They found that almost one third of the divergence in asset allocation might be attributable to genetic factors. Indeed, twins that were frequently in touch invested in a similar manner. But identical twins who grew up separately also demonstrated similar financial decisions. The researchers explain, “We attribute the genetic component of asset allocation—the relative amount invested in equities and the portfolio volatility—to genetic variation in risk preferences.”

However, Knutson and his colleagues sound a cautionary note: not all participants acted in accordance with how their genes might predict. Just because several studies reveal that genes appear to play a role in determining the financial decisions, doesn’t mean that they are the only things that matter. Even if someone is biologically wired to be risk-averse, they might demonstrate risk-seeking behavior depending on the situation. For example, say someone in her late 20s who is predisposed to risk aversion is setting up a retirement account. She has also taken two online courses that recommend more aggressive investing early in one’s career, so she decides to be more risk-seeking, and invests more money in stocks than bonds. In this case, knowledge triumphed over genetics.

That genes can influence our credit scores is an intriguing finding of neuroeconomics. Maybe one day, credit reports won’t just outline our borrowing and repayment history but how it deviates from expected behavior based on our genes.

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