Prenatal Testosterone Influences Interest in Entrepreneurship

interest in entrepreneurship

There are, quite literally, thousands of academic studies that examine why people want to run their own companies. So it’s unusual to come across a new paper that takes a novel enough angle on interest in entrepreneurship for me to write a post about it.

But here’s a new explanation from a recent article in the academic journal, Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice. It’s exposure to prenatal testosterone.

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Yes, you read that right.

People who are exposed to more testosterone in utero are more likely to want to be entrepreneurs than people who are exposed to less of this hormone in the womb.

But before I get to the evidence, let me start with the theory for why.

Testosterone doesn’t just matter to the development of sex organs and building muscle mass, it also plays an important role in brain development. While the exact ways early testosterone exposure affects the brain aren’t well understood, studies show that people exposed to more testosterone in utero are more willing to take risks later in life.

The higher propensity to take risks, in turn, makes people more likely to go into business for themselves.

Three scholars who (appropriately) work at the Schumpeter School of Business and Economics at the University of Wuppertal in Germany  (Diemo Urbig, Werner Bonte, and Vivien Procher), studied 579 German undergraduates. They found that those students who were exposed to more prenatal testosterone — as demonstrated by a higher ratio of their ring fingers to the middle fingers, a common test of this exposure — had greater entrepreneurial intent, which they defined as “a self-acknowledged conviction by a person that they will set up a new business venture and consciously plan to do so at some point in the future.”

Moreover, the authors discovered that the increased testosterone exposure boosted risk tolerance, which led to the higher interest in entrepreneurship.

This study is one in a line of papers by different academics showing that people with more exposure to prenatal testosterone are more likely to be entrepreneurs than other people.

The University of Wuppertal scholars’ contribution was to show that early exposure to testosterone affects the odds of being an entrepreneur by increasing risk-taking propensity, a pathway hypothesized, but not tested, by previous scholars.

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Scott Shane Scott Shane is A. Malachi Mixon III, Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of nine books, including Fool's Gold: The Truth Behind Angel Investing in America ; Illusions of Entrepreneurship: and The Costly Myths that Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Policy Makers Live By.

4 Reactions
  1. Interesting study. But, undoubtedly, there is much more to understanding entrepreneurial tendencies.

    After being an entrepreneur for over 35 years, and helping, literally, hundreds of other companies get started and grow, the appetite for risk is a factor, but misunderstood.

    The reality is the best entrepreneurs are not huge risk takers. In fact, they are informed about the risks and use that to plan. And, they *do* plan. You could even say they tend toward being risk averse.

    They combine several major factors of the venture to make their short and long-term decisions; and they have a combination of inherent personality attributes that allow them to create their strategies and *act* on them.

    Without belaboring the perspective that an assessment like this is virtually worthless without full context, like everything else in life, it’s much more complex than what this seems to propose. Myriad factors – personalities, experiences, DNA, timing and luck, external market and personal factors, etc. – all play a significant role. Without a balanced combination (and there are infinite variations of combinations) failure is likely. Just look at the statistics: real-life failure rates have been above 90% within the first five years for decades, despite what we “discover” in studies like this.

    As an aside, that failure rate is reality. Actual venture activity is (entirely believably) estimated to be 5X more than the number of registered businesses. Unregistered start-ups in garages, basements, dorms and street corners are everywhere. Most break before they ever get to file papers in their state capitol. But what they go through is no different than ventures with signed papers. They lose time, money, friends and family just like any other “business”.

    Too many academics and the blindly hopeful in Silicon Valley will continue to try to unlock The Secret. Holy-grail algorithms, fanatical inspiration, 5-minute pitch contests… They are all for naught. It takes the right personal combination, real planning, dogged execution – and good-old luck. All of those count.

    There are no silver bullets. And isolated studies like this one can only be put into the contextual hopper as yet another tugboat-nudge in the entrepreneurial experience.

  2. Indeed, there are many different individual and environmental factors that make people intending to start an own business and even more factors influencing their subsequent successes and failures. In a study like this, limited not only in print space but also in length of related surveys sent out to potential entrepreneurs, we can only focus on a very small part of an admittedly very complex picture. To appreciate the full complexity, some studies might not even focus on the most infuential factors, but on interesting other factors. Therefore, such studies necessarily look like oversimplifications. With respect to information and insight, articles of 20 pages length (and even more so, related summaries) will never be able to match 35 years of entrepreneurial experience. Such research articles should probably be seen as a single magnified view at one spot of a big picture; the overall picture only becomes visible when putting together all the research articles.

  3. Really interesting. But I think more tests needs to be done. It is like those claims that there is a direct relationship between intelligence and the size of the mother when there is really no relationship.

  4. Testosterone has a relationship to dopamine and both are drivers of focus and motivation, in other words they make you want to get stuff done!

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