A “Mind-Control” Parasite Is Pushing People to Start Businesses
COLORADO — July 26, 2018
A new study shows that U.S. students infected with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite are more likely to be majoring in business studies.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, showed that university students who tested positive for the parasite Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) were more likely to major in business, and professionals with the parasite were more likely to start their own business.
Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii), which is also called the “mind-control” parasite, is a one-celled parasite that’s carried by cats. It infects as much as one-third of the world’s population, often after people come in contact with cat feces. People also can be infected if they consume undercooked, contaminated meat or drink contaminated water. T. gondii can cause toxoplasmosis, a potentially deadly disease -- the reason pregnant women are told to avoid cats’ litter boxes -- and those with compromised immune systems.
More than 2 billion people, including 60 million in the United States, are estimated to be infected with T. gondii. Healthy children and adults, however, usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms.
There's a theory that the parasite is subtly altering connections in our brains, “changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents,” as an evolutionary biologist at Charles University in Prague Jaroslav Flegr says.
“Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year,” he adds.
After an infected cat defecates, Flegr learned, the parasite is typically picked up from the soil by scavenging or grazing animals, then harbor it in their brain and other body tissues. People, in its turn, are exposed not only by coming into contact with litter boxes, but also by drinking water contaminated with cat feces, eating unwashed vegetables, or, especially in Europe, by consuming raw or undercooked meat.
Stefanie Johnson, lead author of the study and an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado Boulder's Leeds School of Business, said the results indicate a positive correlation between exposure to T. gondii and entrepreneurial behavior.
“We can see the association in terms of the number of businesses and the intent of participants, but we don’t know if the businesses started by T.gondii-positive individuals are more likely to succeed or fail in the long run,” Johnson said. “New ventures have high failure rates, so a fear of failure is quite rational. T.gondii might just reduce that rational fear.”
In the new study, researchers examined 1,495 American university students, 22 percent of them had been tested positive for T. gondii. But what's interesting is that the students who were infected were 1.7 times more likely to be a business major than those who weren't infected.
The researchers also found that countries with higher levels of T. gondii infection also show higher levels of entrepreneurial activity. This is so because the T. gondii might somehow turn off the ‘fear of failure’ setting in our brains.
But the researchers also noted the dangers of this risky behavior, because of most business ventures fail, and according to the past experiments, the parasite can strip rats of risk-evaluating abilities, putting them in life-threatening situations.
“We report that Toxoplasma infection alters neural activity in limbic brain areas necessary for innate defensive behavior in response to cat odor,” wrote the authors of the study. “Moreover, Toxoplasma increases activity in nearby limbic regions of sexual attraction when the rat is exposed to cat urine, compelling evidence that Toxoplasma overwhelms the innate fear response by causing, in its stead, a type of sexual attraction to the normally aversive cat odor.”
It is known also that T. gondii causes mood disorders and behavioral changes, including rage intermittent explosive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, slower reaction times and suicide.
Still, some scientists soothe that people shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the parasite because much of the research was conducted unreliably.
In its turn, Flegr thinks there’s a different reason why scientists are quick to doubt the body of research.
“There is strong psychological resistance to the possibility that human behavior can be influenced by some stupid parasite,” he said. “Nobody likes to feel like a puppet. Reviewers [of my scientific papers] may have been offended.”
Johnson said that her team plans to continue this research, and look at a possible link between toxoplasmosis and conservatism next. Johnson said she also wants to test whether successful entrepreneurs are more likely to have been infected with the parasite.
“So what if all the businesses started by toxoplasma-positive people fail? What if that fear was a good thing? We want to know," she said.