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Parasite in cat poop linked to entrepreneurial behavior in people



cat in litter boxShutterstock

  • A new study has found a link between a parasite in cat
    feces and entrepreneurial behavior.
  • Humans can be infected with Toxoplasma gondii
    if they come into contact with cat feces or contaminated
    products, but most people do not show any symptoms.
  • Researchers found that students with toxoplasmosis were
    1.4 times more likely to be a business major than those who
  • Among professionals who attended entrepreneurship
    events, those who tested positive for the parasite were 1.8
    times more likely to have started a company.


A parasite found in cat feces may have an influence on
risk-taking and entrepreneurial behavior, a team of researchers
has found.

The study,
published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal
Society B
, found that university students who tested positive
for the parasite Toxoplasma gondii were more likely to
major in business, and professionals with the parasite were more
likely to start their own business. 

Humans can be infected with T. gondii if they consume
undercooked, contaminated meat or drink contaminated
water, according to
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People can also
get the infection — known as toxoplasmosis — through contact with
cat feces that contain T. gondii.

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. Johnson and her fellow researchers also
found that countries with a higher prevalence of the parasite had
a lower proportion of people who cited “fear of failure” as the
reason they were discouraged from starting a business.

“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

in a press release. “New ventures have high failure
rates, so a fear of failure is quite
rational. T.gondii might just reduce that
rational fear.”

The researchers point out that most research in economics has
relied on rationality as an explanation for human behavior, but
biological factors like parasites have rarely been studied in
connection with business choices. They suggest that
behavior-altering infections like toxoplasmosis could influence
human decision-making.

Infection patterns among students and professionals

Johnson’s team selected 1,495 undergraduate students in biology
and business classes and tested them for the presence of T.
antibodies. Of the group, 22% tested positive. 

Results from the antibody test were then analyzed against each
student’s reported major. For those majoring in business,
Johnson’s team also compared students on the management and
entrepreneurship track to other specializations like accounting
and finance. 

The results indicated that the students who tested positive for
T. gondii were 1.4 times more likely to be a business
major than those who weren’t infected. Among the business majors,
students who tested positive were 1.7 times more likely to be
focusing on management and entrepreneurship.

Toxoplasma gondii
gondii parasite.

Ke Hu
and John Murray/Wikimedia Commons

Johnson’s team also collected saliva samples from 197 people who
attended entrepreneurship events, and each person was asked
whether they had started their own business. The scientists found
that the participants who tested positive for the parasite were
1.8 times more likely to have started a company.

Johnson’s team also attempted to test for connections between
T. gondii and entrepreneurship on a global level. They
compiled data on the prevalence of the infection in 42 countries
and compared them against national surveys of entrepreneurial
activities and attitudes. The researchers saw a positive
correlation between the presence of toxoplasmosis in a population
and the proportion of people who reported an intention to launch
their own business or were engaged in entrepreneurial activity.

Meanwhile, there was a negative correlation between the
prevalence of toxoplasmosis and the percentage of people who
said they were discouraged from starting a business due to fear
of failure. 

told NBC News
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.

The parasite has been found to influence human behavior

More than 2 billion people, including 60 million in the United
States, are estimated to be infected with T. gondii,
though very few show any symptoms. According to the CDC, some
people with toxoplasmosis may feel flu-like symptoms like swollen
lymph glands or muscle aches. Severe toxoplasmosis may include
damage to the brain and eyes, such as reduced or blurred

It’s still unclear exactly how toxoplasmosis influences human
behavior. But past studies of populations with varying levels of
toxoplasmosis have linked higher rates the infection
to more
economic prosperity
and higher
levels of neuroticism

Small studies conducted in the Czech Republic and Turkey also
found that people
with toxoplasmosis had a higher rate of car accidents

A 2012 study analyzed
decades of health records from women in Denmark to investigate
the link between toxoplasmosis and mental illness. The results
suggested that women who tested positive for the parasite had a
higher rate of suicide attempts. The likelihood that an
infected woman would attempt suicide in a particular year was 1.5
times higher than among uninfected women. 

Teodor Postolache, the lead author of that
study, told
in 2012 that the parasite may be interfering
with people’s prefrontal cortex.

“That area is like a braking mechanism, like it’s a brake
in a car,” Postolache said. “That what we are thinking is that
it’s possible that the parasite, in fact, interferes with the
capacity of the prefrontal cortex to apply brakes.”

Toxo cyst in a mouse brain.

Domain/Wikimedia Commons

How much is our behavior impacted by parasites and infections?

It’s important to note that the findings of the new study are
correlational, not causal, so the authors cannot say whether
toxoplasmosis caused anyone to take more risks, be more inclined
toward entrepreneurship, or feel less afraid of failure. Many
other factors or dynamics could be at play.

But the research adds to a growing number of studies that have
shown how parasites can affect human behavior. Johnson’s
team pointed out other recent research that has demonstrated how
infections can influence people’s susceptibility to mental
disorders and other behavioral changes.

For example, Chlorovirus ATCV-1, a virus typically found in green
algae in lakes and rivers, may
 people’s cognition: infected people seem to have
shorter attention spans and are slower to complete tasks like
drawing a line that connects a sequence of numbers.

Scientists have also
found links
between some intestinal bacteria such as
Bacteroides and Prevotella and higher levels
of anxiety and irritability. 

This growing body of evidence may indicate that parasitic
infections could be affecting our culture and business on a
larger scale than we’d previously realized, the new study

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