Cortisol shifts financial risk preferences

Kandasamy, Narayanan; Hardy, Ben; Page, Lionel; Schaffner, Markus; Graggaber, Johann; Powlson, Andrew S.; Fletcher, Paul C.; Gurnell, Mark and Coates, John (2014). Cortisol shifts financial risk preferences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(9) pp. 3608–3613.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1317908111

URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1317908111

Abstract

Risk taking is central to human activity. Consequently, it lies at the focal point of behavioral sciences such as neuroscience, economics, and finance. Many influential models from these sciences assume that financial risk preferences form a stable trait. Is this assumption justified and, if not, what causes the appetite for risk to fluctuate? We have previously found that traders experience a sustained increase in the stress hormone cortisol when the amount of uncertainty, in the form of market volatility, increases. Here we ask whether these elevated cortisol levels shift risk preferences. Using a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over protocol we raised cortisol levels in volunteers over 8 d to the same extent previously observed in traders. We then tested for the utility and probability weighting functions underlying their risk taking and found that participants became more risk-averse. We also observed that the weighting of probabilities became more distorted among men relative to women. These results suggest that risk preferences are highly dynamic. Specifically, the stress response calibrates risk taking to our circumstances, reducing it in times of prolonged uncertainty, such as a financial crisis. Physiology-induced shifts in risk preferences may thus be an underappreciated cause of market instability.

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