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.”

4 replies
  1. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    Charlie, Thanks for this post. I am sure that neuroscience has much to offer, but the eagerness of neuroscientists to answer the “why” question as opposed to the “what happens in the brain” question, has left me cold. Add the overwhelming amount of jargon they choose to use and I’ve rapidly lost interest. Rich

  2. Randy Conley
    Randy Conley says:

    Spot on Charlie. It’s much easier to “explain” (aka rationalize, justify) crummy human behavior by removing responsibility from the individual and saying “the brain did it,” as if we don’t have any control or responsibility for regulating our behavior. Neuroscience has its place – no doubt about it. But in many regards it has jumped the shark and become a convenient, magical, end-all be-all “explanation” for just about everything.

    P.S. If I’ve offended anyone with my remarks, I apologize. I didn’t have any control over what I typed. My brain made me do it.

  3. John
    John says:

    Always provocative,

    Recently I have been reading about the way our brains and neurochemistry reacts based on the way we communicate. What seems to make sense to me (non scientist) is that when I communicate in a way that makes one defensive then they are less able to perform at Peak levels. The opposite holds true when I communicate in a way that engenders trust and optimisim. People respond to that with creativity. And the neuroscience helps understand (at least part) of why people respond the way they do. For more you might look to the work by Judith Glasser, Robert Waldman and Andrew Newberg.

    I came across a quote today that struck me. It is told by Michael Neill in his TED-X talk; You mind creates your world and then says, “I didn’t do it.” David Bohm. It was in response to how we can look at a picture and see either an old woman or a young woman. When in fact it is neither it is a bunch of lines. Our brains in fact do “create” and fill in a lot of the blanks in our interpretation of the world.

    Happy Monday


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