The solution to one of the biggest puzzles of the last decades has at the same time resulted in the uncovering of one of the biggest medical scandals in history. Over the last 15 years or so psychologists have been wondering about the sharp increase in suicides in the southwestern part of the country. The first report of a statistically significant increase in suicide rates is generally attributed to Hoffmann and Meyer’s article in the Psychology Quarterly 16 years ago. Since then myriads of psychologists have attempted to find explanations for this phenomenon.
Ironically the solution to the puzzle was not found by psychologists but by the young molecular biologist John Grubner. While working on his PhD thesis Grubner came across early but neglected research of Dr. Mark Benniger. During his early career as an academic Dr. Benninger was researching the factors that are responsible for the difference in risk appetite among individuals in sports or business. Dr. Benninger had hypothesized that it is a particular gene which modulates risk appetite and that lower activity of the gene leads to more risk seeking behavior by individuals.
The general perception was that Dr. Benninger never completed his work. It was assumed that as he started to help building the nations system of Centers for Prenatal Diagnostics and Treatment (CPDT) he simply lacked the time to continue his research. John Grubner’s intuition told him differently. And so Mr. Grubner applied for a postdoc at the Southwestern CPDT where Dr. Benniger was the director until his recent dismissal. Instead of devoting his time at the Southwestern CPDT to research, though, Mr. Grubner used the time to hack Dr. Benninger’s personal files.
What he found was as much shocking as it was a surprise even to him. It was true that Dr. Benninger has not been able to link risk taking by entrepreneurs to genetic activity. But he did discover a gene which was responsible for controlling ones sense of reality. It is a well known fact that people on average rate there skills above average independently of their true skills which leads to the interesting phenomenon that poor performers grossly overestimate their abilities while very skilled individuals tend to rate their abilities too low. Dr. Benninger was able to show that it was a specific gene that causes the brain to structure in such a way that outside feedback on ones effective performance has almost no impact on ones self image.
Among Dr. Benninger’s files Mr. Grubner found several documents referring to cases where research contracts had been awarded to overconfident scientists with inferior research projects. His personal notes also revealed that he considered this cognitive bias a flaw in human evolution and that he thought that the world would be better off if people would more realistically assess their own abilities. During the early days of the CPDT project the oversight was fairly weak. Dr. Benninger used this period to include into the approved treatments of genetic diseases a treatment leading to the deactivation of the gene responsible for the optimistic bias.
To link the increase in the suicide rate to the genetic modifications introduced at Southwestern CPDT was then comparably simple. And once this discovery reached the public it hit like a bomb. Understandably it caused huge uproar amongst individuals potentially affected by Dr. Benningers treatment against their will. The dismissal of Dr. Benninger did little to calm the public mood. More and more the case now seems to escalate into a general public discussion about terminating government monopoly on reproductive medicine.