PSYCH ARTICLE

arm wrestling

Is Your Work Ethic Genetically Pre-Determined?

Slackers and go-getters utilize dopamine differently in their brains

In a new scientific study, people who are willing to work hard for rewards—go-getters—had a higher release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in areas of the brain known to play an important role in reward and motivation, whereas those who are less willing to work hard for a reward—slackers—had high dopamine levels in the brain area that plays a role in emotion and risk perception.

Parents have preached about instilling a work ethic in their children for as long as children have been born, but the scientific origin of individuals' variances in willingness to work, has remained a mystery—and quite the challenge for perturbed parents. We need only look at long-running TV series Dallas—recently relaunched with the next generation of Ewings—to see a prime example in hard-working J.R. and cavalier Bobby.

A new brain imaging study utilizing a brain mapping technique called positron emission tomography (PETscan) has found an individual's willingness to work hard to earn money is strongly influenced by the chemistry in three specific areas of the brain: the striatum, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the anterior insula. The fact that dopamine can have opposing effects in different parts of the brain complicates the picture regarding the use of psychotropic medications that affect dopamine levels for the treatment of a number of brain-related ailments.

Dopamine is perhaps best known for its pleasurable sensations, but it's more about anticipation and reward than it is pleasure. While the research is in its early stages, it could potentially have important implications for the treatment of attention-deficit disorder, depression, schizophrenia, and other forms of mental illness characterized by decreased motivation. The research does not yet draw correlations to genetics or suggest that dopamine release can't happen situationally as opposed to systemically.

Image: Researchers Michael Treadway, left, and David Zald mock-arm-wrestle. (Steve Green/Vanderbilt )

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