Why Do People Become Social Entrepreneurs?

Social entrepreneurs – which Ashoka.org defines as “individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems” – are very popular these days. Many people, it seems, are starting organizations to solve a variety of social problems.

This rise in the popularity begs the question: why do people become social entrepreneurs? There are, no doubt, numerous factors, but one possibility that intrigues me is genetics.

Some people may be innately predisposed to become social entrepreneurs. At the moment, this is only a hypothesis. I have no direct evidence to support my assertion. Moreover, even if genetic factors influence are found to the decision to become a social entrepreneur, those effects may be miniscule in comparison to other factors.

Nevertheless, there is data to suggest that this hypothesis is worth considering. Research shows that our genes influence how altruistic we are. For instance, one study by Ronald Kessler and his associates show that genetics accounts for about 30 percent of the difference between people in “normative altruism obligation,” which captures the duty people feel to engage in charitable activities, such as volunteering money or time for social causes.

According to David Cesarini and his colleagues, approximately 20 percent of the difference between people in selfless behavior is innate. And experiments by Bjorn Wallace and his collaborators show that 42 percent of the variance in the willingness to give up financial gains to punish unfair behavior is genetic.

A few researchers have even identified specific genes associated with altruism. For instance, Ariel Knafo’s research group found that people with the long version of the gene, AVPR1A, which provides instructions for the production of a brain receptor for arginine vasopressin were more altruistic than people with the short version when they played a game that involved giving away money.

A gene for a receptor for the brain chemical dopamine called DRD4 also appears to affect altruism. As Richard Ebstein, a researcher at Hebrew University in Israel, explains, ”Dopamine probably plays a key role in pro-social behavior. People with the altruism gene may do good works because they get more of a thrill out of their good works.”

One might expect that altruistic people are more likely than non-altruistic people to choose jobs-like joining the Peace Corps-that involve helping others at expense to themselves. After all, research by Lauren Keller and her associates shows that genetic effects account for 37 percent of the differences between people in preference for work environments “in which moral values, social service, and concern for coworkers are stressed.”

Genetics influences the tendency to be an entrepreneur. It also influences people’s choice of a variety of occupations. So it makes sense to believe that genetics would influence the tendency to choose the most altruistic type of entrepreneurship – social entrepreneurship.

While an innate tendency to engage in social entrepreneurship is only a hypothesis at the moment, someone is likely to test the argument in the next few years. If they do, I’ll be sure to update you with what they find.

*Adapted from Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Your Genes Affect Your Work Life” by Scott A. Shane, ©2010 Oxford University Press

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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.