When a parasite that’s found in cat poop infects mice, it alters a specific brain function that makes them lose their innate fear of cats. As you can imagine, all doesn’t end well for the rodent that goes up to play with Fluffy. In a study that was published Wednesday by the Royal Society B, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) found that humans that are infected with this parasite demonstrate this same risk-taking behavior.
However, what was important in the study was that infection in humans led to a better outcome than when the infected mouse got up close to its arch-nemesis. Namely, a disproportionate amount of them displays entrepreneurial behavior, according to the researchers.
The parasite found in cat feces used in the study is a protozoan known as Toxoplasma gondii. The parasite tends to be a significant public health problem in the U.S., where it’s estimated that 8–22 percent of the population is infected, according to Science Direct. The cat poop parasite is also the culprit in behavioral changes in many vertebrates, humans included. There are other ways for you to become infected with T. gondii besides not washing your hands thoroughly after cleaning kitty’s litter pan. Such ways include drinking contaminated water or by consuming contaminated or undercooked meat.
Toxoplasma infection can cause health issues, and according to the CDC, pregnant women and others with compromised immune systems are particularly at risk.
Before they started the study, the researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder had a theory that the cat poop parasite may affect humans similarly to cats, making them more open to risk, reports USA Today. Those risk-taking attributes translated to those found in business, for instance, the researchers surmised.
The CU Boulder Researchers used a saliva-based assay test to determine that university students who tested IgG positive for the brain-altering parasite were “1.4 [times] more to be business majors, and 1.7 [times] more likely to have an emphasis in management and entrepreneurship over other business-related emphases.”
The researchers additionally found that among those who went to entrepreneurial events, any of them that were infected with the cat poop parasite were 1.8 times more likely to have started a business.
Stefanie Johnson is the lead author of the study and discussed the results in a press release. Johnson, who is an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, said that the study results indicate “a positive correlation between exposure to T. gondii and entrepreneurial behavior.”
Researchers at CU Boulder then attempted to test for a link between the cat poop parasite and entrepreneurship in other countries. The researchers did this by collecting data on the prevalence of infection by T. gondii in 42 different countries and compared them to national surveys of entrepreneurial activities and behaviors.
Johnson and her fellow researchers found in the countries with higher rates of infection by T. gondii that there was a lower proportion of individuals who claimed a “fear of failure.” The people with the cat poop parasite cited this fear as the reason they didn’t start 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 said 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.”
Johnson went on to say that she and her team plan to analyze a possible link between conservatism and infection with the cat poop parasite next. She additionally stated that she wanted to conduct research to determine if successful entrepreneurs are more likely to carry the T. gondii parasite.
Stefanie Johnson additionally said, “So what if all the businesses started by toxoplasma-positive people fail? What if that fear was a good thing? We want to know.”