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.”

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…]


Trust, Gun Control, and Neuroscience

It may be hard to imagine, given the horrific events of Newtown Connecticut, but violence of almost all types has been declining rapidly in the US and around the world.

That’s the story in the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, a sweeping psycho-historical view of human nature by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. Pinker makes the case with some compelling data, though his ideas may be even more interesting than the statistics. And, they have something to say about Newtown and about gun control.

One theme Pinker touches on is self-control. Have you heard of Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment with kids? Young kids grappled with the choice – to take one marshmallow now, or to get two if you can wait a bit? Pinker perfectly describes the accelerating discount rate that we apply to near-term gratification vs. long-term: how much more is a bird in the hand worth than two in the bush?

The answer is, it partly depends on how “in the hand” the bird is. Faced with a two-for-one tradeoff at two points in the distant future, we have no trouble – imagine choosing between two investments, one with a 10% payoff in a year, another with a 100% payoff in two years.

Self-Will and the Proximity of Temptation

The problem comes when that 10% payoff is right here, right now. Deciding whether you should have a grilled chicken salad or a Big Mac for lunch tomorrow is pretty easy.  But what about right now?  When you just happen to be standing in front of a Mickey D’s. And it’s lunchtime.

The closer we are to temptation, the weaker our self-will becomes when up against it.  We know not to shop for food when we’re hungry.  AA reminds alcoholics not to hang around bars. We put the candy on the upper shelf where the kids can’t get at it. “Just say no” has proven no match for making condoms available when it comes to halting teen pregnancy.

In short, moral development and ethical behaviors aren’t just a matter of self-will and integrity.  Good behavior is greatly affected by the social milieu – some of which can be designed into the environment.

Gun Control and Self-Will

We give up all kinds of rights in order to not tempt bad behavior. We post speed limits on roads, and enforce them.  We enforce guidelines about additives in food, and advertising guidelines about health. First amendment rights of free speech don’t extend to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

Yet in the gun control debates, the United States is conspicuous by its refusal to recognize this simple fact of moral design – the fact that availability of guns per se is a driver of gun-based violence.

Proponents of gun control insist on framing it as an issue of self-control, pure and simple –it’s psychology, they say. But even advocates of gun control have been co-opted; they generally focus on approaches like background checks, to make sure mentally impaired people can’t acquire guns.

Screening for gun purchasers is not the problem – the problem is ubiquity, pure and simple. The marshmallows guns are lying all around, tempting the unhinged to seek immediate gratification for their fevered fantasies.

Consider: Per capita gun ownership in the US is double that of any other country – the second-highest being Yemen, far behind. We have more guns in the US than we do passenger vehicles. We have 300% more guns per capita in the US than they do in France, Germany or Austria.

The result is as predictable as it is horrific. The rate of death by assault is about 300% higher in the US than in any other OECD country.  Two-thirds of murders in the US are committed with guns. Our gun-related murder rate is second only to narco-war-afflicted Mexico.

The solution does not lie in buyer screening. The problem is that we are awash with guns in the US.

Yet the response of pro-gun forces to mass murders is always the same – to focus on the self-will of the perpetrator, or on greater defenses by potential victims. This is akin to arguing for greater investor education in the face of a Bernie Madoff, less provocative clothing in the case of rape victims, just-say-no lectures in the case of teen pregnancy.

I don’t think we’ll hear anyone arguing that 1st-graders should be armed to protect themselves. And yet, sure enough, some argue that the solution is armed teachers. Enough insanity.

It in no way reduces the moral culpability of wrong-doers for us to focus on removing the source of the temptation. Why torture a kid with marshmallows if you’re trying to teach him self-control? Why allow ourselves to be surrounded by guns if we’re serious about cutting gun violence?

If we want to create a trust-based society, rather than regress to a Hobbesian world of armed camps (and schools), we have got to recognize the critical role that society plays in establishing norms, taboos, ethics, codes of conduct, and moral behavior. What we do is greatly influenced by what’s around us.

We are not born into the world with fully-formed moral codes that can be appealed to as sufficient conditions for ethical behavior. Ethics is a social construct as much as it is innate. The gun control debate needs to move not just toward tightened purchase requirements and limitations by type of weapon, but toward significantly fewer guns, period.

Is Neuroleadership More Than Reinventing Wheels?

The man was dining alone. He looked up from his menu and asked the waiter, “What’s the soup du jour?”

Beaming with pride, the young waiter answered, “Soup of the day!”

Something like that joke is playing out in the buzzy new field of “neuroleadership.”

Business Week, July 28, “The Business Brain in Close-Up,” introduces David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, who are using EEGs and MRI scans to “explain” how leaders think.

One cited example: ethical dilemmas get weighed in parts of the brain associated with early memories, suggesting that moral thinking is formed early in life. Now there’s a surprise!

(In a related story, just-convicted Conrad Black, at age 14, was expelled from a private school for stealing exams and selling them to students. Thanks to neuroscience, we’re able to divine a pattern).

Another insight: to change, focus on the to-be state, not the as-is. Are you listening, change managers? Got that, personal growth teachers? Or did you already get that from, say, Buddhism, or Gandhi?

Final insight: focus on a few key ideas, not on too many. Wow.

See, here’s the thing. In our opening joke, the waiter thought he was offering new information—an explanation—to the customer. Of course, he added absolutely nothing. So it often is when “science” gets hyped as an “explanation.”

Take Strategy + Business’s most-downloaded-article-of-2006—surprise, it’s Rock and Schwartz’s “The Neuroscience of Leadership.” A direct quote:

“Cognitive scientists are finding that people’s mental maps, their theories, expectations, and attitudes, play a more central role in human perception than was previously understood… This can be well demonstrated by the placebo effect… the mental expectation of pain relief accounts for the change in pain perception… Dr Price and Dr Schwartz are currently working to demonstrate that the Quantum Zeno Effect explains these findings. [italics mine]

Since the placebo effect was named back in 1955, the power of mind over matter was pretty well known by the Greeks milennia ago, and probably by witch doctors for longer than that—this doesn’t strike me as a news flash.

Back to the waiter and the soup. Drs. Price and Schwartz’s "explanation" does not explain.

A valid "explanation" is more than translation. It may add context, suggest a cause, offer an exegesis, or give a definition.

Telling me that emotional distress or ethical thinking is associated with particular brain wave patterns is the exact equivalent of "soup of the day." It replaces a useful, common-sensical emotional vocabulary with one based in chemicals. Nothing good or bad about that—but certainly nothing new.

For anyone who’s ever done management or leadership training, Rock and Schwartz do get one thing right. They say that change must come from within, and it comes only when one pays attention. Bingo on both counts. That raises the question—whence cometh attention?

Trainers know it means you’ve got to create compelling experiences.  But I’m not sure the neuroleadership crowd gets it.

Michael Rennie,  a McKinsey Organization Practice leader, apparently thinks this is leading edge stuff.  As he puts it in the BW article:

"When you start talking about things like behavior change and psychology, executives’ eyes glaze over. What helps them change their behavior is a cognitive frame."

I am honestly not clear here.  Does Rennie mean the new vocabulary of neuroleadership is itself a "cognitive frame?"

If so—trainers, back me up on this—the last thing that changes behavior is a cognitive frame. What changes behavior is an epiphany, a moment of insight, a recognition, a shock, a surprise.  A theory of epiphanies is not a substitute for ephipanies themselves.  Describing epiphanies in terms of neurons activities adds little to explanation, and even less to real change.

In my experience, Rennie is right in one respect—the more uptight and Type-A and left-brain the audience, the more likely they are to demand a cognitive model, and to claim that cognitively "understanding" the model equals change. They are deluding themselves.  (A colleague described one audience of lawyers: he was told by the client, "don’t try to engage them; just talk, they’ll decide what’s important.")

Leadership guru Warren Bennis, in the BW article, says neuroleadership has potential but is "filled with banalities."  I like his instincts.

What would actually make neuroscience interesting to leadership?  To get beyond mere translation, it would have to show us something new or interesting, beyond things like "focus more."  Here are some themes that would make me sit up and take note:

* a taxonomy of leadership "moments" of differing types, distinguishable by brain waves
* linking of specific leadership moments to parts of the brain that deal with poetry
* linking of specific leadership moments to other parts of the brain that deal with deductive logic
* linkage of selfish vs. altruistic behaviors to other aspects of cognition
* more detailed description of some general concepts like "self-awareness" or "self-actualization"

Until then, to paraphrase Kierkegaard:

It is like seeing a sign in the store that says Sale: you go in to buy, but find it is only the sign that is for sale.