Do sex hormones at birth predict later-life economic preferences? Evidence from a pregnancy birth cohort study

76 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2020 Last revised: 28 Nov 2020

See all articles by Boris van Leeuwen

Boris van Leeuwen

Tilburg University - Department of Economics

Paul Smeets

Maastricht University

Jeanne Bovet

Institut des Sciences de l'Evolution

Gideon Nave

University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School

Jonathan Stieglitz

Independent

Andrew Whitehouse

Perth Children’s Hospital - Telethon Kids Institute

Date Written: April 1, 2020

Abstract

Economic preferences may be shaped by exposure to sex hormones around birth. Prior studies of economic preferences and numerous other phenotypic characteristics use digit ratios (2D:4D), a purported proxy for prenatal testosterone exposure, whose validity has recently been questioned. We use direct measures of neonatal sex hormones (testosterone and estrogen), measured from umbilical cord blood (n=200) to investigate their association with later-life economic preferences (risk preferences, competitiveness, time preferences and social preferences) in an Australian cohort (Raine Study Gen2). We find no significant associations between testosterone at birth and preferences, except for competitiveness, where the effect runs opposite to the expected direction. Point estimates are between 0.05-0.09 percentage points (pp) and 0.003-0.14 SD. We similarly find no significant associations between 2D:4D and preferences (n=533, point estimates 0.003-0.02 pp and 0.001-0.06 SD). Our sample size allows detecting effects larger than 0.11 pp or 0.22 SD for testosterone at birth, and 0.07 pp or 0.14 SD for 2D:4D (α=0.05 and power=0.90). Equivalence tests show that most effects are unlikely to be larger than these bounds. Our results suggest a reinterpretation of prior findings relating 2D:4D to economic preferences, and highlight the importance of future large-sample studies that permit detection of small effects.

Keywords: hormones, economic preferences, testosterone, developmental origins

JEL Classification: D01, D04, C91, D87, D90

Suggested Citation

van Leeuwen, Boris and Smeets, Paul and Bovet, Jeanne and Nave, Gideon and Stieglitz, Jonathan and Whitehouse, Andrew, Do sex hormones at birth predict later-life economic preferences? Evidence from a pregnancy birth cohort study (April 1, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3565809 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3565809

Boris Van Leeuwen (Contact Author)

Tilburg University - Department of Economics ( email )

P.O. Box 90153
Tilburg, 5000 LE
Netherlands

Paul Smeets

Maastricht University ( email )

P.O. Box 616
Maastricht, 6200MD
Netherlands
+31433883643 (Phone)

Jeanne Bovet

Institut des Sciences de l'Evolution ( email )

Montpellier
France

Gideon Nave

University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School ( email )

3730 Walnut St
JMHH Suite 700
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6365
United States

Jonathan Stieglitz

Independent ( email )

Andrew Whitehouse

Perth Children’s Hospital - Telethon Kids Institute

100 Roberts Rd
Subiaco, Western Australia
Australia

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