Genes and jobs: Are we pre-programmed to love our work?
Managers should be mindful that factors such as working conditions and leadership style are not the only drivers of job satisfaction
Job satisfaction is a common topic of water-cooler conversation.
Many people love their work; some even find it hard to know when to stop. Others have a reputation as the office grinch – always complaining, never satisfied.
Why might this be? Are we genetically pre-programmed to be happy or unhappy in our jobs?
Studies in molecular genetics have found that many psychological characteristics can be inherited. For example, researchers have found that certain genes or groups – also known as constellations – are associated with specific behaviours.
These include an individual’s approach to risk taking, voting behaviour, tendency towards alcoholism, social popularity, and even the number of sex partners they seek.
Studies of twins are a commonly used method for researchers studying the influence of genes.
Several studies have shown that even when twins are brought up apart from early childhood, their levels of job satisfaction in adulthood were significantly correlated, indicating a strong genetic influence.
How then can genes affect job satisfaction?
According to the theory of evolutionary genetics of personality, genes influence our adaptation to the environment around us. They also affect social attainments – the individual’s perception of their position in society.
If we consider a job as representing an individual’s social attainment and adaptation to their environment, then job satisfaction is the outcome of such attainment and fit.
Genes can influence job satisfaction in several ways affecting our physiological characteristics. These in turn shape behaviours that affect job attainments and individuals’ perception about the jobs they hold.
Indirectly, genes may also influence job satisfaction through their effect on personality – for example, extrovert and emotionally stable people tend to like their work more.
In our research with Wendong Li, a PhD graduate from National University of Singapore Business School, we selected two genetic markers – dopamine DRD4 7R and serotonin 5-HTTLPR.
These are the most frequently studied genetic variants associated with personality traits such as neuroticism, self-esteem, novelty seeking and impulsivity.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter chemical produced in the brain that helps control its reward and pleasure centres, as well as regulate movement and emotional responses. It enhances feelings of enjoyment when people perform certain activities such as sport.
Studies have shown that people who carry a particular variant of the dopamine receptor gene, known as dopamine DRD4 7R, tend to be more novelty seeking than those who lack this strain.
Novelty seeking is characterised by impulsivity and excitement, and is associated with unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, alcohol use disorder and substance misuse.
People with this variation have also been reported to be more inclined to attention deficiency, hyperactivity, alcoholism, risk taking and pathological gambling as well as lower levels of conscientiousness.
Such characteristics do not augur well for job satisfaction, and indeed our research found that people with higher levels of this variation do feel less job satisfaction.
The second genetic marker we studied, serotonin 5-HTTLPR, is another neurotransmitter responsible for regulating a variety of brain functions, including pain, sleep, emotion, appetite and the system that produces hormones.
It is widely believed to be a key contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness and is the genetic foundation of many emotional disorders. It is found in all of us in either short or long variants.
Research has shown that people who carry the short variant have less active serotonin activity and hence, weaker emotional regulation. They show more neuroticism and are less extroverted.
In contrast, people with the long variant tend to be sensitive to positive information while being insensitive to negative information. These individuals tend to be more satisfied with their jobs than those with the short variant.
Genes can also influence job satisfaction through their effect on an individual’s pay level.
Dopamine in particular influences pay because of its effects on impulsivity. Impulsive people tend to be less dependable and less achievement oriented, characteristics that tend to translate into lower job performance and hence, lower pay – ultimately resulting in lower job satisfaction.
Overall these findings suggest our inherited genetic make-up plays a significant role in determining job satisfaction.
Given this, managers should be mindful that factors such as working conditions and leadership style are not the only drivers of job satisfaction.
Our study also paves the way for future research to possibly pinpoint specific genes that are relevant to certain leadership styles or to be entrepreneurial.
Such knowledge will be useful in helping individuals better understand their career potential and plan their future.
Song Zhaoli and Richard Arvey are associate professor and visiting professor, respectively, of management and organisation at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School