Antisocial teens more likely to become entrepreneurs

August 14, 2013: 2:36 PM ET
Bill Gates

Bill Gates

Searching for future entrepreneurs? Try high school detention.

FORTUNE -- Want to find the future entrepreneurs in a room full of teenagers? Look for the boys who like to break a rule from time to time.

That's the finding of some Stockholm University researchers, who have published a study about how modest antisocial behavior among adolescent boys is a positive indicator of future entrepreneurship. They did not find a similar linkage in girl, nor did they find that committing crimes had any impact on entrepreneurial predilection.

And, to be clear, the relevant characteristic was behavior rather than beliefs. When it came to antisocial attitudes that did not result in rule-breaking, the researchers found no correlation with entrepreneurship.

The study used data on an entire Swedish grade-school cohort that was tracked into its mid-40s. It controlled for socioeconomic status and IQ, although did find that the wealthier and smarter students were more likely to become entrepreneurs (for both males and females).

From the study:

While Harvard Business School Professor Abraham Zaleznick once noted: "I think if we want to understand the entrepreneur, we should look at the juvenile delinquent," one might also say: "If we want to understand the (development of the male) entrepreneur, we should look at the juvenile (modest) rule-breaking behavior."

These results thus do not draw an overly negative picture regarding antisocial tendencies among entrepreneurs. The results rather suggest that male entrepreneurs, when compared to male non-entrepreneurs, may go through a somewhat stronger rebellious and non-conformist phase in adolescence with regard to their behaviors; they may "drift" towards antisocial involvements in their adolescent years without becoming outlaws or developing into notorious criminals.

In many ways, the findings do make a certain sort of sense. Entrepreneurs are, almost by definition, looking to take risky actions that somehow upset the status quo. At the same time, however, they are generally viewed as pro-social individuals (thanks to job creation, etc.). So perhaps those punishments for breaking rules as a teen are made up for as an adult, when you are admired for directing those antisocial tendencies into something more productive than cutting class.

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