A parasite found in cat poop is linked to entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs drive may be linked to mental fortitude, financial capital, lucky breaks, dogged persistence … or a parasite frequently found in cat litter?

Photo: Caleb Woods

It takes a bold and sometimes reckless courage to leave the known world of an office job and start a business on your own. What pushes entrepreneurs to pursue this risky endeavor? Their drive may be linked to their mental fortitude, their financial capital, their lucky breaks, their dogged persistence. Or maybe the secret to overcoming your fear of failure is a parasite frequently found in cat litter.

This is the wild connection a new Proceedings of the Royal Society B study linking entrepreneurship with epidemiology found. Stefanie Johnson, an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado, and her fellow researchers discovered that students who have been infected with the Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite found in cat feces and undercooked meat, were 1.4 times more likely to have majored in business than non-infected people. Among people attending entrepreneurship events, those who got infected with this brain-changing parasite were 1.8 times more likely to have started their own business.

The parasite could be reducing a fear of failure

Chances are good that you will meet someone infected with this T. gondii parasite during your lifetime. It infects an estimated 2 billion people worldwide and has been linked to risk-taking behavior. “More than 30 million men, women, and children in the U.S. carry the Toxoplasma parasite, but very few have symptoms because the immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website reports.

The parasite also has a correlational link to a lowered fear of failure, which may explain why more infected people become entrepreneurs. Countries that had a high rate of T. gondii “also had a lower fraction of respondents who cited ‘fear of failure’ as a factor preventing them from initiating a business-related enterprise.”

To be an entrepreneur, you have to be willing to take enough risks to get to the reward of your own business.

“Many of us do not change jobs, take tough assignments, or start our own ventures because we are afraid of failing,” Johnson told Ladders. “The fear of loss most often outweighs the benefits of gains that you could get because we are risk-averse. Maybe [T. gondii] removes that a little.”

Okay, this parasite could let down your guard and reduce your fear of failure, but before you start seeking it out, recognize that it also comes with many big downsides. The study reported that Toxoplasma has been linked to a “greater risk of car accidents, mental illness, neuroticism, drug abuse and suicide.”

Is this finding going to start a rash of people purposefully infecting themselves? Hopefully not. People who would be willing to infect themselves are already risk-taking enough.

“If someone were risky enough to eat cat poop or ingest a parasite that causes brain dysfunction — they are risky enough and don’t need [T. gondii],” Johnson said.

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.