How Neuroscience Over-reaches in Business

The Science of BusinessEvery age has its fads and fashions. Some of them hold up over time – competitive strategy, business process re-engineering, quality circles.  Applying neuroscience to business, I suggest, will not be one of them.

In Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn, there is a passage where Huck tries to explain to Jim that French people speak a different language. Jim would no more be able to understand a Frenchman, says Huck, than he could understand a dog, or a cow, or a cat – because they all speak different languages.

Jim’s retort is that a Frenchman is not a dog, cow or cat, but a man – and that therefore by all rights he should talk like a man, meaning English. As is true in Huckleberry Finn at a meta-level, it’s the truth of the innocents (this time voiced by Jim) that is the deeper truth. The difference between human languages is trivially and categorically distinct from the differences between the species.

Neuroscience in business is something like that. Neuroscientists seem to think that their research is revealing previously hidden secrets of leadership, influence, motivation, and decision-making. But all too often, all they’re doing is translating into French.

Overstating the Case

There are plenty of examples, frequently from highly distinguished, educated, and highly regarded people, of claims for neuroscience in business. For example:

The statements all follow a general pattern. First, a discussion about the structure of the brain, or the neurochemistry of a particular event type. Second, a correlation of those structures or chemistries with some management phenomenon.  And third, a conclusion about what can and should be done in management, based on the preceding two insights.

The Proof is In the Pudding

Here are actual examples from the authors themselves about the power of neuro-thinking to help management.

Here is Daniel Goleman distilling the neuroscience advice on how to help others change bad habits:

  1. Empathize before giving advice
  2. Be a good listener
  3. Offer a caring gesture
  4. Give them your full attention

Here are Crawford’s four lessons from neuroscience on how to improve innovation:

  1. Eat and sleep well, and don’t stress
  2. Expose yourself to new ideas
  3. Make it safe for people to share ideas
  4. Create playful environments.

Here is John Ryan on four neuroscience-derived “tactics to boost our performance and model success for our colleagues.

  1. Be positive
  2. Give detailed, positive feedback
  3. Stay healthy and in good physical shape
  4. Seek challenge, but not to the point of stress

Here is Pillay on ways that brain science can “enhance understanding within the executive environment

  1. Re-packaging old ideas in neuroscience terms can make them more acceptable
  2. Using the language of brain science can seem less personally threatening
  3. Brain science uncovers myths (he lists six myths, none of which need brain science to debunk)
  4. Giving further insights and evidence (e.g. “visualizing isn’t just New Agey,” and “the brain can change.”)
  5. Providing a system for targeted interventions
  6. Developing coaching protocols and tools.

Non Sequiturs and Blinding Flashes of the Obvious

I don’t know about you, but I find these conclusions to be either completely unrelated to the neuroscience itself (Pillay’s claim that people like scientific language, therefore the language helps people understand better), or numbingly old hat.

Do we really need the language of neuroscience to be convinced that we should be positive, healthy, empathetic and good listeners? Where are the now-decisively vanquished proponents of negative, unhealthy self-absorbed managers?

The neuro-fans do have one point, however. An MIT study evaluated the effect of logically irrelevant neuro-babble on listeners to a debate. They found:

Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two nonexpert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on nonexperts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

In other words – it all just sounds so much prettier when they say it in French.

[Note: I do believe there are valuable applications of neuroscience, particularly in designing targeted medical solutions. I just don’t see them much in evidence in business. And yet, it’s a mainstream fad. Ah, Barnum…]


16 replies
  1. BarbaraKimmel
    BarbaraKimmel says:

    Hi Charlie- recently this subject has been a popular topic of conversation over at Trust Across America – Trust Around the World. My observation is more attention is starting to be paid to the science… and more research is being initiated.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:


      I think it’s past “starting to” be paid attention. From the John Ryan BusinessWeek article cited in the post, dated 2011:

      “The burgeoning field of neuroscience—the study of the nervous system and the brain—has gone mainstream. The race is on to translate its insights into practical applications at work.”

      So at least one neuro-writer says it was already mainstream two years ago. And yes, more research is being initiated. But all the more reason to find curious the dearth of serious content.

      At root, I think, is a fundamental confusion about the role of “explanation” in science. The ordinary businessperson of today thinks that you “explain” something by using technical terms to describe it. That’s a falsehood.

      As Aristotle said two millennia ago, there are various kinds of explanations. When we “explain” something, we could mean:

      – a causal statement

      – a statement putting a fact into a larger context

      – a clarification of motives or intentions

      – how something fits in a larger purpose

      My point is: translating something from English into French doesn’t “explain” much. Why then do we think translating something into chemical language does any more?

      The burgeoning field of neuro-leadership can keep on burgeoning – but don’t confuse that with forward motion.

      • Christian Maurer
        Christian Maurer says:

        An intriguing subject indeed.May I offer a more prosaic attitude. I personally find it interesting how neuroscience helps us to understand how we are “wired”. I see already value if the found evidence confirms that certain long known behaviors are in conformity with the way we are “wired”, I find this reassuring. It is like getting a second opinion from another expert. I would agree though that the neuroscience aspects are overhyped; or as the French would say: it is like old wine presented in new barrills

        • Charles H. Green
          Charles H. Green says:

          Christian, thanks for the thought. I too find it innately interesting to find out “how it all works” under the hood. In some ways understanding is its own reward. Also, having lived for a couple of years with someone with a serious brain injury, it is doubly interesting to recognize the interconnectedness and complexity of the brain.
          My issue is more with the hype, as you put it; too often the claim is not that it’s “interesting,” but that it offers a unique perspective without which we cannot be said to truly “understand” an issue; that to me is overstated.
          Thanks very much for building on to the discussion.

  2. Kelly Riggs
    Kelly Riggs says:

    Thoughtful post, Charles. Although a bit simplistic, it seems to me that neuroscience is like a technical explanation for the 75-year old book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” In other words, you can tell me what time it is, or you can tell me how to design and build a watch while explaining how it will revolutionize the way we tell others what time it is.

  3. David
    David says:

    You’re right Charles, let’s not try to understand the actual biological basis of our leadership crisis. Let’s just keep using today’s best leadership tool – an assessment designed by 2 housewives in the 1950’s to assess women returning to work, also known as the MBTI. While we’re on this path, why do we need to understand germs or genes to improve human health?
    We have a leadership crisis. We urgently need better leaders at all levels of organizations. Out of 60,000 books on leadership so far we have no clear idea of what it is, how to measure it or how to formally improve. So the answer is we should stop seeking breakthroughs in related fields?

    I propose we are just at the very beginning of a long journey of understanding the biology of leadership, and this ‘fad’ may last as long as another language that slowly made its way into the business world, called ‘accounting’. Both neuroscience and accounting describe an aspect of reality we can’t directly see. Both of these languages increase our capacity to control an important aspect of experience, one external, one internal. Most leaders can read balance sheets well, but fail dismally at reading people’s mental states. I say let’s give them the most accurate language possible for this subtle but critical capacity for motivating and managing others.
    Neuroscience is here to stay, and the connections to leadership are not going away, no matter what a few authors and bloggers might think about this upstart new idea.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:


      Thanks for the comment, good to have your views here.

      I quite agree with you that (as I noted in the original piece) there are some great benefits to be provided from neuroscience, particularly in the field of medicine. And I share your (delightfully expressed) cynicism about the progress of the field of “leadership” to date.

      As to the rest, however, I think you are suffering from a case of physics envy, and you’re hardly alone; it’s a disease that various social sciences have suffered from for over a century. See for example

      The analogy with accounting is flawed. First, accounting is by its very nature quantitative, and entirely theoretical (like math, and mostly like physics). It was built to be metricized.

      When you say “both neuroscience and accounting address an aspect of reality we can’t directly see,” I think that’s quite misleading. Neuroscience aims to describe an aspect of reality; accounting does not. Accounting is merely an abstract representation of mathematical relationships. No accountant believes in the “reality”of goodwill, or receivables, or depreciation. There is no metaphysical “there” there for accounting.

      By contrast, trust, love, and leadership are all very “real” aspects of life as a human being. They are notoriously “messy,” and far from purely abstract. While it is technically (and trivially) true that anything can be expressed in purely physico-chemical terms, there is a question, beyond a certain point, of usefulness.

      A far better analogy than accounting would be phrenology, or perhaps lobotomization, or alchemy – areas of “study” which have suffered from the mis-application of “scientific” structure.

      In my own field of trust, for example, there is the humorous example of scientific statements to the effect of oxytocin being “the trust chemical,” the thing that “explains” trust. Saying that oxytocin “causes” or “explains” trust is about as useful as saying that I like to sit in the sun because the electrochemical impulses are transmitted from photosensitive receptors on my skin to a particular locus in the brain. This is only one small part of “explanation,” more properly called “translation.”

      This is not a harmless delusion. The debate in education over pay-for-results, and the resulting disastrous teaching-to-tests, is an example of a blind insistence on simple metrics applied to social issues. Another would be the elegant theories that led us to hedge funds, Black Swans, and other failed attempts to rationalize a frequently analog world.

      As Shakespeare said, a rose by any other name would smell the same. Translating the smell of a rose into the chemical constituents of its odor may be very valuable to a perfumer, but it would be worse than useless to a lover. In fact, to do so is the stuff of caricature.

      It comes down, simply, to the right tool for the job. If the job is to create perfumes, design medicines, develop functioning artificial limbs, then by all means, the language of neuro-chemistry is quite appropriate, even vital.

      But when the job is to describe, predict and improve human relationships of various types, the language of neurochemistry is vastly over-complicated, gives only trivial insight, and is occasionally harmful. We’re better off with the various languages of metaphor, meaning, subjectivity, poetry, feelings, justice and reciprocity, to name a few.

      Improved thinking on leadership is more likely to come from rigorously applying commonsensical thinking about relationships than it is discovering the chemical pathways by which they are executed internally.

  4. William Seidman
    William Seidman says:

    First, in the interests of disclosure, my company has a strategic relationship with Srini Pillay and his company the NeuroBusiness Group. It may therefore come as a surprise that I agree with everything in this post (though I think that the post misrepresents Srini’s positions). Mindfulness (the popular term used to describe much of the neuroscience – the technical term is “self-directed neuroplasticity”) as it is currently presented is probably a fad because it has little direct business application. It is too much about simple formulas for protecting the brain’s processing power and
    managing fear reactions that undermine productivity. Neither concepts are bad per se, but they are simplistic and ultimately flawed.

    But in focusing specifically on mindfulness, the more powerful and
    importance implications of neuroscience are being missed. Neuroscience research tells us a lot about how people learn and live – particularly what motivates people and what causes people to learn new things faster and more completely – much of which is important for businesses.

    We have been using neuroscience (notice I said “using it” not directly
    teaching it) for about the last 8 years with great success. We have a process that identifies what makes star performers in organizations great and – surprise – much of the greatness of star performers conforms to the neuroscience of positive images and brain development through practice. More importantly, we use the neuroscience of learning – particularly the importance of positive images, social learning, reflective learning and sensible repetition — to guide learners to quickly adopt the stars’ attitudes and behaviors. As a result, of using neuroscience based learning, typically 9 out of 10 of people, within a few months, live the values and behaviors of the top performers.

    The productivity gains are, of course, staggering. Think of it this way…what is the value to an organization to having everyone as good as their stars? For most organizations, the value is huge. Even two years ago this wasn’t possible. But using the newest neuroscience of learning, everyone can be a star; which has significant long-term business impact and is NOT a fad.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Mr. Seidman,

      Thanks so much for weighing in. I greatly appreciate the participation of folks who actually know something about the areas I frequently dip my toes into.

      I defer to your critique of mindfulness, and my characterization of it, as being faddish, but not reflective of more serious points. Thanks for that.

      But as to the other points, while I certainly lack neuroscentific credentials, I do know a thing or two about the meaning of concepts like explanation, prediction, and causality. The meaning of such terms is the province not of science, but of philosophy of science, and it’s there that I have my quibbles.

      Stipulated: one can describe phenomena in a nearly infinite number of ways, and many of those constitute what we might call “explanations.” For example, consider the five following ways of describing the same event:

      -I raise my arm with a glass in my hand
      -my neurons send signals to the muscles in my arm to rise

      -I hold the glass of champagne up to the light to see bubbles
      -I toast the bridge and the groom
      -Levanto la mano

      Is one of those “explanations” better than the others? No, they’re all equally good, or poor, depending on the context. Some explain by referring to motives, others to chemistry, others to context. There is nothing inherent in the “language” of the explanation that renders it better than any other.

      So when you say, “We have a process that identifies what makes star performers…great,” I immediately ask, why is that particular process of identification better suited to the task at hand than a plethora of other possible processes of identification?

      Why does using the neuroscience of learning make learning more effective than, say, the approaches developed by Tony Robbins in 1986 in his book Unlimited Power: the New Science of Personal Achievement? (A better book than you might think). Why does using the neuroscience of learning make for better results than the legendary swimming coach Doc Councilman’s visualization techniques applied to Mark Spitz, winner of seven olympic gold medals?

      I’m not saying neuroscience doesn’t work. I’m saying, where’s the evidence it works any better FOR A GIVEN APPLICATION than does anything else?

      Here’s another simple philosophic principle: prediction is independent of explanation. I don’t have to be able to count the hairs on my head in order to put a comb through my hair to good effect. I don’t need to know geophysics to confidently predict the sun will rise tomorrow. And I don’t have to know neuroscience to know the power of positive images and repetition – neither did Tiger Woods, Olympic coaches, and many other success stories in life.

      A lot of what passes for “explanation” in much that’s written about neuroscience is simply the skills of keen observation married to inductive reasoning – talents available to most of us.

      The issue is not what’s “right” or “true” or “better.” The real issue is pragmatic – what’s most useful.

      I have little doubt that the language of neuroscience is critical for the development of targeted medicines or treatments for brain-related functions; poetry just will not do. But when it comes to common business applications, I have yet to see anything that coherently explains why neuroscience gives a better answer than, say, Peter Drucker.

      Until then, the rebuttable presumption is not that we have discovered something brand new in the last two years, but that we’re in the process of developing yet another new language which can contribute to our powers of description, and whose proper application is being slowly teased out. That’s about it.

      Or so it seems to me.

      • William Seidman
        William Seidman says:

        Oh the joy of a good debate!

        I of course disagree with the notion that neuroscience is just a different language for what is already known and practiced, and that, as such it doesn’t produce any better results that previous versions of the same ideas. While it is certainly true that there are many “methodologies” that emphasize positive images and various learning styles, none of these represents a true scientific system (Drucker, as good as he is, is still basically just a set of assertions). Their results are, at best spotty and in many cases simply poor.

        In contrast, and going straight to your question of “is this better?,” we have substantial evidence that the results of using neuroscience-based learning (again, not teaching mindfulness but using what neuroscience tells us about how people form long-term learning and how brain chemistry differs with different stimulus) are significantly better than is produced individually, but more important on a
        mass organizational basis. About 50% of the organizations that use our system conduct formal certifications involving thousands of people (using a variation of Kirkpatrick Level 3 measures and a tool I developed for my doctoral dissertation) and better than 9 out of 10 people demonstrate the same attitudes and behaviors as the top performers
        initially in 5-6 months at the end of a program, but also as a sustained change as measured a year later. These results have been substantiated for many job
        functions and roles in very different organizations including ones in other cultures and using different languages. None of the programs you cite even come
        close to that level of consistent impact, and we have repeatedly and predictably demonstrated these results.

        The economic impact of this level of performance is significant. In the rare places that have good business outcome measures (e.g. Kirkpatrick Level 4 measures of sales performance, inventory levels, etc.), we show significant improvements. In a few situations, we have been able to run true experimental comparisons, with multiple control groups (including groups using some of the approaches you mentioned) and pre/post tests, and the groups using our methodology significantly outperformed the controls. This is not some theory, but proven results.

        I know your doubt this is possible, but it is. I would be pleased to show you how we achieve these results if you are interested. Just email me and we can set up a time for a demo.

        • Charles H. Green
          Charles H. Green says:


          And thanks to you sir, for the continued dialogue, I do appreciate it.

          Two clarifications: First, I don’t say neuroscience “doesn’t produce any better results,” I say in some places it clearly does, in others it’s far less clear.

          Second, I don’t doubt for a moment that the success you cite is possible. In fact, let me congratulate and laud you for the excellent results you have clearly produced, and the scale at which you have produced them.

          However, that does not go to my point. My point is that I have yet to hear an approach to which was clearly and uniquely attributable to neuroscience.

          You have stated that an approach based on “positive images, social learning, reflective learning and sensible repetition” has been extremely successful at producing learning in business. Stipulated. I get it. I don’t doubt for a moment it’s been successful. (By the way, the scale of its success is almost entirely due to intelligent management of the enterprise behind it, I’d suggest).

          Success is not the point – unique insight is the point. They sound like commonsense points to me. Chris Argyris has talked about reflective learning for about four decades now. Every golfer since at least Bobby Jones has known to not practice heedlessly, because you’ll just teach yourself bad habits.

          Has neuroscience taught us something about learning that was unknown or in doubt in the work of William James, or of John Dewey? If so, what is it?

          Can you point to someone else’s approach to learning that was based on negative images, solitary learning, non-reflective learning, and mindless repetition? I am not aware of any.

          A good criterion: if neuroscience produces either a counter-intuitive result, or resolves a debate that previously existed in the field, then I would say we could attribute the value to neuroscience. If it simply “explains” things that were assumed and never in doubt, then the value add is minimal.

          If all it does is “scientifically prove” something that was both intuitive and never in doubt, then the adjective “scientific” is truly useless. You can “scientifically prove” the sun will rise, but no one will pay you for the insight.

          Where’s the counter-intuitive insight in business learning that’s due to neuroscience? Where’s the debate that neuroscience solved?

          Your success is clear, well-deserved, and worthy of admiration. I’m just not clear what credit neuroscience should get for it.

          I do appreciate your dialogue here, and am curious to hear your comments on the above.


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