Dopamine, Rats, and Entrepreneurism

Entrepreneurs are, by definition, risk-takers. It is impossible to be a successful entrepreneur without taking risks. And the reason most people aren’t entrepreneurs isn’t because of financial concerns, time constraints, or a lack of ideas—it’s an aversion to the realities of high risk.

But could a brain chemical influence a person’s tolerance for risk, entrepreneur or otherwise? A study from the University of British Columbia suggests so. The study, which was published in peer-reviewed journal Neuron, found that dopamine plays a major role in decisions that involve risk and reward—from sports to startups.

Researchers put rats through a game of chance: pressing one lever gave rodents a small reward; another lever yielded either a large reward or nothing at all. A comparison to an investor deciding between bonds and stocks was drawn. By shutting down or turning on dopamine signals in the rats’ brains, their decision-making process was heavily influenced: the researchers were able to control which lever rats were likely to choose based on their dopamine levels.

While this study doesn’t specifically draw links between dopamine levels and entrepreneurs, others do, such as this one by Avichal Garg: “Working long hours for little pay for years doesn’t make sense to most people. But dopamine, a reward chemical in the brain, helps explain why these people exist,” he writes.