The Earthling

Is Prozac Driving Wall Street? 

Read Nonzero, the book that has been shown in clinical tests to be twice as uplifting as the leading antidepressant.

Back in college, I once heard a guy fantasize about somehow getting cocaine into Wall Street’s water supply and making a fortune by betting on the bull market this would trigger. Or, for that matter, he could bet on the bear market that would ensue a couple of hours later. In psychopharmacology, after all, what goes up must come down.

At least, that was the thinking back then, before Prozac. With Prozac, you supposedly can defy the law of gravity: get the bull moods without the bear moods—and, presumably, get a bull market without an immediately ensuing bear market.

Don’t laugh. One noted 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. Randolph Nesse, author (with George Williams) of Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, estimates that about 20 million Americans are on antidepressants. And at least some people who take these drugs “become far less cautious than they were before, worrying too little about real dangers. This is exactly the mind-set of many current investors.” If indeed “investor caution is being inhibited by psychotropic drugs,” a Wall Street bubble “could grow larger than usual” before popping “with potentially catastrophic economic and political consequences.”

Nesse’s theory was mass-e-mailed to journalists (e.g., me) by his agent, John Brockman. Brockman asked his clients to opine on the subject of “today’s most important underreported story,” then sent their opinions far and wide. The idea, of course, is to turn these underreported stories into overreported stories, thus turning his underpublicized clients into overpublicized clients.

In this case, Brockman’s plan may work. Nesse, a professor at the University of Michigan, is a personable, articulate (and smart, if it matters) guy who comes off well on video. Coupled with his Wall-Street-on-Prozac theory, he now becomes a wildly proliferating sound bite just waiting to happen. I give him a 50-50 shot at being on CNBC within a week–maybe even one of the networks.

After all, there is an issue here that goes beyond Wall Street. What happens when the serotonin-specific antidepressants render some users nearly numb to caution, impervious to negative feedback, in various realms of life? Do they get uppity with bosses and get fired? Do they quit jobs, certain that they can succeed in any endeavor of their choosing? Do they become babbling, obnoxious bores? Take it away, Dr. Nesse.