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Will women stock exchange traders rescue Wall Street?

August 23rd, 2011

by Denyse O’Leary

The new science of neuroeconomics is making big claims. Can they be justified?

Can neuroeconomics rescue shattered economies?

We are asked by some to believe that it can. “Neuroeconomics” is one of many new directions in neuroscience – scanning the brains of floor traders, for example. In ” Testosterone and high finance do not mix: so bring on the women ” in a recent issue of The Guardian, Tim Adams tells us that the new science of neuroeconomics is proving beyond doubt that “hormonally-driven young men” should not be left alone in charge of our finances. Research shows that too much testosterone impaired the risk assessment abilities of traders, and so does too much cortisol. The solution, he thinks — riffing off Michael Lewis’s The Big Short — is to get more women involved: Womenomics.

According to Adams, a new science of decision-making – neuroeconomics –

proposes the idea that you will create a better understanding of how people make economic choices if you bring to bear advances in neurobiology and brain chemistry and behavioural psychology alongside traditional economic maths models. Not surprisingly, neuroeconomics has plenty to say about the question of whether decision-making, in high-pressure situations, divides on gender lines.

Reading the final report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission of the US Treasury, Adams was struck by

… the overwhelming maleness of the world described. The words “she”, “woman” or “her” do not appear once in its 662 pages. It is a book, like most historical tragedies, written about the follies and hubris of men.

His hire-more-women proposal will please some and scare others. How to think about it in a responsible way? There is a difference between a truly conservative temperament and right-wing ideology (which isn’t usually very conservative at all). A true conservative agrees with the Catholic Church that human nature is not easily overridden.

So the question is not whether women would have been more cautious with other people’s money. Let us grant that. No one needed neuroscience tools to discover that women tend to be more cautious than men about things in general. The question is, would pushing women onto the trading floor and creating incentives to hold them there have the same effect as the women would have if, left to themselves, they naturally gravitated there? A liberal tends to say yes, and a conservative tends to say no. At issue is the importance each ascribes to human nature. The liberal thinks human nature can easily be altered, using the right artificial incentives.

Let’s see what this would mean for getting more women to be floor traders. If the late Leona “only little people pay taxes,” Helmsley and a horde of grasping landladies are anything to go by, some women do have what it takes to take what you’ve got.

But caution is advised: News stories about “women making it in the world of high-risk finance” almost always ring false. For one thing, the women who are well adapted to that environment don’t stand out enough to merit a story. So the story that gets published is usually about changing the environment to suit women. In the context, that means changing human nature, unfortunately.

Adams makes that part quite clear:

Keep reading.


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  1. Leo
    August 25th, 2011 at 00:10 | #1

    I just finished reading Too Big To Fail. I have also read Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, and When Genius Failed. It is one sorry tale after another.

    On one hand, women are likely to be more cautious with money. On the other hand, Wall Street can corrupt women, too.

    Bottom line: Wall Street was out of control, and while things have quieted down somewhat, it is still out of control. Markets are still opaque and much of the toxic debt is still out there. The mess is so big and the global economy so complex and interconnected that there are no easy solutions or quick fixes.

    Will Rogers captured the problem this way: Stupidity got us into this mess, why can’t it get us out?

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