Adrenal glands and market meltdowns: British researcher links hormones to traders' behavior

Adrenal glands and market meltdowns: British researcher links hormones to traders' behavior

October 11th, 2013 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

The massive meltdown that clobbered the housing market and crushed the U.S. economy can be traced, in part, to a little-understood part of the human body: our adrenal glands.

So says a British scientist who on Thursday presented some of his preliminary findings in Chattanooga at a finance symposium sponsored by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, home of the nontraditional Finance for the Future initiative.

Most people know about adrenaline, which kicks in when human beings get stressed. But over a longer period of stress, such as what one might find on a Wall Street trading floor, the human body begins to release another chemical -- cortisol, known as the stress hormone.

"It's responsible for most of the dangerous illnesses in the Western world," said John Coats, a former Wall Street trader-turned neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge. "Immune disorders, depression, it's an unbelievably toxic hormone."

In stressful or uncertain situations, cortisol -- which is linked to testosterone -- harnesses the body's energy storage to help run away from a grizzly bear, win a fistfight or engage in profitable stock market activity. But in the long term, it does more harm than good, Coats said.

"Chronic exposure changes the way we think, it inspires fear and anxiety, and even changes the memories you recall," he said."Unbeknownst to traders, unbeknownst to you, it's affecting your performance."

The chemical, which scientists have been unable to control or throttle, can be beneficial when released in short doses, especially in men, he said. Cortisol rewards winners. Traders who make a lot of money on a big bet will gain the increased confidence and sharper focus that comes from the dopamine rush of being a winner. Traders who lose or take a vacation will find their cortisol levels falling to normal.

Winners tend to keep on winning, even when all other variables are controlled. Studies originally identified this phenomenon in the animal kingdom, Coats said.

"But after a while, these animals get overconfident, they pick too many fights, neglect their parenting duties, patrol areas that were too large," he said. "That's what's happening to my fellow traders. Guys, and it's usually guys, would make a trade, they'd get a bump up in their [testosterone] levels, take a bigger risk, and then they'd take on too much risk with terrible risk-reward trade offs."

Women, whose testosterone levels are about one-tenth of men's, are less prone to the ups and downs of cortisol. But there are few women in the trading world.

After prolonged exposure, male traders, as well as members of other high-stress positions can fall victim to the "red mist" phenomenon, "where they go crazy," he said. Athletes blow, politicians go rogue, and even comedians go over the edge and offend their audience.

On Wall Street, the hormone overload leads to the type of risky trades and blown bets that some believe is responsible for the housing crisis and related maladies.

"Generally what happens at the banks, is a trader gets on a winning streak, and risk management keeps raising their risk limits," he said. "They've got to figure out a reasonable limit that keeps people sane. Even more important, once a trader gets on a winning streak, they've got to cut them off and send them home."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith, esmith@timesfreepress.com, or 423-757-6315.