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…]


The Mathematics of Age and Wisdom

Time goes faster as we get older.

This makes intuitive sense if you assume time has a subjective flavor, in addition to an objective meaning. A year at age 10 is a tenth of one’s live; at age 50, it’s only 2% of one’s life. The rate of passage of time, measured by our perception of change, indeed increases.

Now apply that concept to age and wisdom. How much wiser is a 60-year old person than a 20-year old person? Three times wiser?
I would argue at least a multiple of six. If not more. Here’s how.

Let’s define wisdom in a narrow, simple way: the ability to perceive patterns from the data of life. And I don’t mean book-data. Any young trader on Wall Street can cite statistics about past bear markets. But the old traders will tell you, until you’ve been through one, you’ll behave stupidly when presented with it the first time.

A 20-year old person has seen 20 years of life. A 60-year old person has seen 3 times that much. Without complicating the math, the oldster has got 3 times more direct experience—more data from which to mine patterns.

But add subjectivity. A 60-year old has not only his or her own life at close hand, but the prior 60 or so years take on a new light. They become more accessible.

Born in 1950, World War II seemed impossibly distant for me at age 10. After all, it had started more than a lifetime ago—for me. At age 40, I was shocked that college freshmen viewed the Vietnam War as similarly distant. Like all boomers—veterans especially—the passage of time has brought those two wars much closer together.

My son, who is now 19, met my grandmother, who lived to 100. She listened to Civil War stories, first-hand, at the feet of soldiers who fought it. That’s one degree of separation from the Civil War to a PS3 gamer.

Yet that feels less remarkable to me now than it used to. I can now envision the 1920s far more easily than previously; but the 1890s still feel quite beyond my grasp.

So here’s my mathematical rule of wisdom: you can mine the history of 2x your age for wisdom.

Thank god wisdom doesn’t depend much on memory. That seems to work in the other direction.