Brain Science: Reductio ad Absurdum

Neuroscience is the hot new kid on the science block. And not without reason; the ability to map the brain’s inner workings offers huge medical potential.

But along the way, neuroscientists – and their fans in business and society in general – frequently commit a basic error that wouldn’t pass muster in a philosophy 101 class. It’s called the error of reductionism, and its most recent incarnation is in the pages of the NYTimes.

Why Powerful People Lack Empathy

The article cites interesting research showing that powerful people lack empathy. The question is why? The authors (associate professors of psychology at McMaster and University of Toronto) say this:

Why does power leave people seemingly coldhearted? Some, like the Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske, have suggested that powerful people don’t attend well to others around them because they don’t need them in order to access important resources; as powerful people, they already have plentiful access to those.
We suggest a different, albeit complementary, reason from cognitive neuroscience…when people experience power, their brains fundamentally change how sensitive they are to the actions of others.  [emphasis added]

Note: they cite one answer to the question “why,” and then proceed to offer a different answer. Or, what they claim is a different answer.

The Error of Reductionism

Suppose I described a television series plot to you. You might ask me why a certain character acted a certain way. And I might answer in several ways, including reference to the character’s personality, or a parallel plot line, or the motivations of another character interacting with this one. All of those might be good explanations, or answers to your ‘why’ question.

But suppose I answered in terms of the changing phosphors on the television screen when you watched the episode in question. Suppose I “explained” the character’s action by enumerating the sequence of LEDs firing in the back of the TV set. (I’m sure I’m wrong on my TV technology, but you get my drift).

You wouldn’t for a moment accept that as an “explanation.” By reducing a phenomenon to some underlying set of physical phenomena (typically chemistry or physics), you succeed in an powerful act of translation – but not of explanation.

You don’t “explain” history by reciting events. You don’t “explain” a French movie by translating it into English. You don’t “explain” genetics by mapping the human genome. And you don’t “explain” why powerful people are cold by pointing to parts of the brain. Such mechanical knowledge is critical to medical intervention, to be sure – but the broader world isn’t asking a medical question, it’s asking a human one.

Reductionism in Business and Society

When the likes of the New York Times and Harvard Business Review go all gaga over our increasing ability to “understand” or “explain” complex phenomena – and are committing the reductionist fallacy – well, Houston we have a problem. And it’s deeper than just scientists being un-educated in the liberal arts.

There is a strong inclination toward the reductionist fallacy in business in general. The wish to break things down, deconstruct, compartmentalize, and quantify is deeply embedded in management theory. Delegate, establish metrics, and manage by the numbers.

This is fine when we’re dealing with supply chains. It reaches absurd levels when we try to “manage” complex human behaviors, social interactions, leadership, corporate culture and the like. The reductionist tendency closely correlates with behavioralism; in training, we see it in the focus on skills to the exclusion of beliefs and mindsets.

We’ve seen a massive failure of the reductionist tendency in the world of education. The No Child Left Behind movement is, more than anything else, about teaching to tests; the mastery of thousands of specific components, in the mistaken belief that if you map enough details, the whole will emerge from the sum of the parts.

It’s not true. Sometimes you lose the forest for the trees. Sometimes the soul is not to be found in the electron. Sometimes the explanation is not to be found by reciting the brain chemistry at play. We require something more to qualify as an answer to the question “why.”

The Number One Mental Illness in Business

Watch Your Blind Spot.Sometimes we don’t think right. Often we don’t think right, and we don’t even notice it. (This is well-described in a book called Blind Spot, by Banaji and Greenwald).

People in business have big blind spots, just as we do in other social milieu. Recently I’ve run across two items that, together, highlight one of the biggest blind spots of them all.  I don’t know what to call it, and I’d like your help in deciding that.

The two items popped up in neuroscience, and in business strategy.


I’ve written before about How Neuroscience Over-reaches in Business. In response to that particular article, reader Naomi Stanford sent me a stunningly good academic critique of the “neuro-leadership” research. Sober, laser-like, and devastating, it lists a number of reasons why the neuro-leadership crowd is up to non-sense.

It’s called Not Quite a Revolution: Scrutinizing Organizational Neuroscience in Leadership Studies, by Dirk Lindebaum and Mike Zundel. It’s tough going unless you love philosophy of science, but worth it if you’re into this issue.

I want to highlight just one of the many points they make, because it jumped out at me so strongly. In their words:

… we argue that a predominant focus upon neuro-science to the study of leadership as an individual difference excludes further important units of analysis…a more appropriate ontological locus of leadership resides in the dyadic relationship between a leader and follower – as opposed to a leader-centric or follower-centric locus…Our appreciation of the dyadic nature of leadership, coupled with the need to be contextually sensitive, is incongruent with the predominant view of organizational neuroscientists who view leadership largely as residing in the leader.

In other words: leadership is a relationship. It’s not [just] a character trait, a skill, or a neuron path residing in an individual, any more than is love, or trust. It’s a 1+1 = 3 situation. You can’t get to the whole by just analyzing the parts.

In leadership, this suggests the key doesn’t lie in examining (or training, or selecting) one party, but in understanding multiple parties in relationship.

What’s the name of this blind spot in neuroscience? The authors suggest it’s reductionism – a desire to break things down to simpler parts.

I think it also smacks of the cult of the individual.


Until the 1970s, business strategy was thought of in metaphors of war, and distinguished largely from tactics. But in the late 1960s, Bruce Henderson took a backwater part of strategy – competitive strategy – and turned it into a quantitative, matrix-hugging bounded idea set. Michael Porter put the finishing touches on it in Competitive Strategy in 1979.  The triumph of this view was so complete that the adjective has been redundant ever since. We now think all strategy is competitive strategy.

The essence of BCG and Porter’s worldview eerily presages the neuroscientists decades later. They saw the essence of strategy as lying within the single, solitary organism of the corporation (or the business unit, if you will).

Strategy, by this view, is all about the solitary struggle of each company to gain and sustain competitive advantage over the Hobbesian hordes who would do it in.  Nearly all business strategy today assumes the solitary nature of the business – the corporation is the atomic unit of business.

But strategy makes the same mistake the neuroscientists would make later. We are increasingly seeing that the successful businesses are not those who see themselves as valiantly struggling alone against the odds – they are instead those who collaborate, form trust-based relationships, and basically get along with the rest of business and society – rather than constantly struggling to ‘win’ against everyone else.

Again, 1+1 = 3. Unless you insist on looking only at 1, and then at 1 – in which case you’ll always end up with 2.

Here’s a small example: the Top Ten most trustworthy companies, over a three year period, outperformed the S&P by 24%.

What’s the name of this blind spot? Perhaps it’s reductionism again. Perhaps it’s the delight that economists like Milton Friedman take in pushing abstract models to the hilt. Perhaps it’s the alienated angst of Ayn Rand lovers. Perhaps it’s the thrill of the old Wild West rugged individualism, or maybe it’s just protectionism.

But whatever – I think the blind spot is the same in both cases.  It is a case of looking to individuals, instead of to relationships, for answers to what are most completely seen and understood as relationship problems.

The blind spot we’re stuck in – focusing on individuals, not relationships – carries multiple penalties. We should interview people for how they get along in groups – but instead we scrutinize their individual performances. College admissions look mainly at SAT scores and grades, not at social abilities. And I’m not even going to mention Congress.

In strategy, Michael Porter is an interesting case. A brilliant mind, he knows full well that the imperative of businesses these days is to get along. But in his recent writings, he is struggling to square the circle – to explain why a company must get along with others in order to gain maximum competitive success. The goal is inconsistent with the tactics for getting there. Companies who “do good” in order to “do well” end up doing neither.

We really need to stop seeing things this way in business, as elsewhere. We live in a relationship world. Thinking we are solitary Robinson Crusoes floating around on our solitary islands is sub-optimizing at best, and destructive at worst.