Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Was the last bubble due to Prozac?

A couple days ago I posted a quote from Matt Yglesias about the danger bold predictors have of becoming cranks. Today, via the Freakonomics blog, I came across an argument about the relationship between the spread of antidepressants and stock market bubbles.

In 2000, Slate contributor Robert Wright noted that a “psychiatrist is now speculating that maybe Prozac and other antidepressants are being gobbled in such volume as to account for the stock market’s seemingly unshakeable self-esteem.” University of Michigan professor Randolph Nesse proposed “the possibility that this market is different because investor’s brains are different.”

What percent of brokers, dealers, and investors are taking antidepressant drugs? Wealthy, stressed urbanites are especially likely to use them. I would not be surprised to learn that one in four large investors has used some kind of mood-altering drug. What effects do these drugs have on investment behavior? We don’t know…. From seeing many patients who take such agents, I know that some experience only improved mood, often a miraculous and even life-saving change. Others, however, report that they become far less cautious than they were before, worrying too little about real dangers. This is exactly the mind-set of many current investors.

Human nature has always given rise to booms and bubbles, followed by crashes and depressions. But if investor caution is being inhibited by psychotropic drugs, bubbles could grow larger than usual before they pop, with potentially catastrophic economic and political consequences.

So, Big Money contributor Caitlin McDevitt asks, “Did Prozac cause the most recent market free fall? Seems like a stretch, but if so, then maybe the ‘great recession’ should have been called a ‘depression all along.”

Given that I work a lot with groups in workshops, it makes me wonder: if you could convince everyone in a workshop to take Prozac (or some other mood-altering drug), what kind of results would you get? Would people be more open to crazy scenarios? Would a map of the future be all about the Singularity or talking unicorns bringing world peace? Or– the more interesting possibility– would the results be awful because people wouldn’t care about the future? (I doubt I’ll get the chance to test the theory any time soon.)

However, there are other things I am experimenting with that don’t require medical supervision, but which I hope deliver some improvements in workshops. Changing the food is one.

I don’t buy the idea that if you feed people marinated tofu you’ll make them smart; but we know a lot about how our brains respond to foods in general, and can design food into workshops in ways that keep people active and well-fed, but don’t make them sated and sluggish. For a while I’ve suspected that caterers unintentionally undermine good meetings and workshops by serving so many pastries, bagels, and coffee. Turns out these are foods that tend to be high on the glycemic index, or sugary things that overstimulate people and encourage the production of memory-impairing hormones like cortisol.

So I’m not only trying to get different foods into my events; I’m also serving them differently, distributing them more evenly through the day so people aren’t tempted to overeat and then crash. We’ll see if it makes a difference in the energy levels of the workshops, and the results.

[To the tune of David Bowie, “New Angels Of Promise,” from the album Hours (I give it 1 stars).]


  1. Maybe stock market bubbles are bad for people and make them depressed, so they start taking antidepressant. In the old days, when I worked at a big law firm, one of the older associates said something like, “I’ve never found a great economy to be good for *me*. I’m always working crazy hours around here when the economy is booming.”

    It seems from what I’m picking up online that — at least among the people I’m connected with — that in this “bad” economy people are slowing down, spending more time with friends and family, simplifying their lives, going hiking instead of to the movies, making things, and feeling a little calmer and happier. I even heard a statistic yesterday that the mortality rate has been down since unemployment has risen.

    Maybe we work too hard!

  2. I mean “antidepressants.”

  3. I get the sense here in the Valley that among even very hard-charging people
    who are between jobs (and I know a few of them), there’s a certain weird
    liberating quality to being unemployed. Yes, it’s a pain to watch the money
    very closely, but for all our collective tendency to define ourselves by our
    work and salaries, there’s an emerging recognition that… you know, maybe
    those insane work hours aren’t… you know… really worth it?

    Or maybe its better explained as an attempt to make the best of a bad
    situation– an example of what Daniel Gilbert calls our psychological immune
    system at work– and a year from now we’ll all be doing 90-hour weeks in
    alternative energy startups, and will have forgotten that slowing down has
    its benefits.

  4. I look forward to the results of this experiment. As a tutor, I always hope that if I’m in a shared day conference I don’t get the afternoon slump spot. I agree, so many conferences serve largely the wrong kind of food. At a few events I’ve attended recently, a platter of fruits, featuring lots of red fruit like strawberries and watermelon seemed to have a positive effect on the gathering.

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