The Economics of Mad Geniuses: Is it possible that mental illness could, in some cases, be good for worker productivity?

JULY 3, 2013, 12:56 PM

The Economics of Mad Geniuses

By CATHERINE RAMPELL

In a magazine column this week, I talked about how expanding access to mental health care could be a cost-effective way to help the economy, given the economic costs of untreated or inadequately treated illness (like worker absenteeism and subsidized housing). Now to play devil’s advocate: Is it possible that untreated mental illness is not entirely bad for the economy, that mental illness could in some cases improve worker productivity? After all, history is littered with examples of “mad geniuses” whose creativity and innovativeness have sometimes been attributed to alleged mental illness (e.g., Thomas EdisonErnest HemingwayVincent Van GoghJohn Nash). There are likewise entrepreneurs of our own time who have been publicly characterized as having some sort of mental or at least neurological disorder. Former executives of JetBlue and Kinkos, for example, famously credited their A.D.H.D. with helping them think more creatively. Stories about 48-hour-straight coding sessions in Silicon Valley can sound a bit like manic behavior, too.Maybe having a mild version of a mental illness is advantageous, at least for aptitude in certain endeavors and interests. Potentially supporting this idea is a recent study by neuroscientists at Princeton that found a connection between choice of college major and a having a family history (or in some cases, a personal diagnosis of their own) of certain mental or neurological disorders. Other studies have found that bipolar disorder and schizophrenia correlate with high creativity and intelligence.

Perhaps you might wonder if broader push to bring people into the mental health care system could lead to overmedication, and potentially dull the brilliance of some oddball innovators. Economists, epidemiologists and other medical experts that I spoke with, though, say that preponderance of evidence suggests that mental illness almost always does more harm than good, especially if you use the broader lens of well-being, and not just economic productivity.

“A little bit of O.C.D. might be a good thing for you to look for in someone working for you on technical issues,” said Ronald C. Kessler, a health policy professor at Harvard Medical School who focuses on mental illness. “Even though the symptoms might lead to higher productivity, they could still be quite impairing in the person’s personal life.”

He added also that the potential upside of medical abnormality is not unique to mental illness.

“Double-jointedness can be disabling,” he said, “but it is also something in milder form that is found in many world-class competitive swimmers.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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