The Zombie Idea of Neuroscience in Business

A zombie idea is one that refuses to die, regardless of repeated efforts to kill  it off.  The idea that neuroscience explains trust and leadership in business is one such zombie. Authors like David Rock and Paul Zak have popularized the idea that we can “understand” themes like trust and leadership better through the wonders of neuroscience, e.g. through the “trust molecule” oxytocin and its effect on the brain.

I’ve personally tried to kill off this zombie – way back in 2007, again  in 2012, again in 2013. But I’m just a business author and blogger.

Ed Hong wrote a withering piece in The Atlantic on Paul  Zak. But The Atlantic can’t compare with night-time talk television: you’ve got to watch late night host John Oliver’s vicious take-down of Zak (skip to minute 10).

And yet – the zombie is back again.  This time, in the Harvard Business Review. In The Neuroscience of Trust Paul Zak states the case for Oxytocin as the causal agent of trust, and identifies eight “strategies” that derive from it.

Let’s be clear: this article is 95% nonsense, and an embarrassment to HBR. Yet understanding just why it is nonsense is very instructive, and not initially obvious – even to John Oliver.  The problem has little to do with neuroscience itself – but everything to do with the logic of explanation.

Zak and his ilk are creating philosophical zombies. The only successful stake through the heart (to mix the horror genre’s metaphors) will be philosophical, not scientific. Here we go.

The Zombie Claim

A typical claim of the genre about neuroscience and leadership is as follows:

For many years, the science of leadership was considered a “soft” science. While many experts in management and business understood the qualities that made a good leader and knew the activities that could help leaders become even stronger, they didn’t immediately recognize the important link between the “hard” science of neurobiology and the “soft” science of leadership.

In the HBR article, Mr Zak says that his neuroscience studies reveal eight “strategies” which “effectively create and manage a culture of trust.”

Zak says oxytocin “causes” trust. (Always be wary of claims of causality). His own lack of confidence in this conclusion is evidenced by the fact that not one of his eight “strategies” includes dosages of oxytocin in the workplace.

The truth is: It makes as much sense to say Oxytocin “causes” trust as it does to say molecules cause car crashes. And neuroscience doesn’t “explain” leadership or management any better than do stories, strategies or similes.

The Zombie Mistake(s)

Zak et al make two important errors of thinking.

The language  problem. Mr. Zak himself describes his research as aimed at answering “the most basic question: Why do two people trust each other in the first place?”  The answer, he claims, is to be found in the biochemistry of the brain – in particular the action of oxytocin.

He claims that the best explanation – the best answer to a “why” question – must come from a particular “language” of human interaction; in this case, the language of biochemistry.

On simple reflection, this is far from evident. Why should the language of biochemistry be better at “explaining” trust than the language of management? Or poetry? Or analogy by stories? Or standup comedy?

In fact, the claim that biochemistry is the best “language” of explanation is no more sensible than the claim that French is better than German.

Any phenomenon, including human emotions, can be explained in an infinite number of ways. If I raise my hand, am I a) contracting my upper arm muscles, b) initiating a handshake, or c) offering a social gesture?

The answer is all the above, and many more. Which descriptor feels better is not a function of the underlying phenomena, but of the realm of reality I’m trying to describe.

The test of a valid explanation is not to be found in the language used, but in the usefulness of that language for the case at hand.

  • If the case at hand is pharmacological, and the desire is to create new drugs, then biochemistry is indeed the right language to use. Neuroscience indeed has its place, and this is one example.
  • But if the case at hand is to understand and affect managerial behavior, then the use of chemical language adds virtually nothing. (See below for why Zak’s eight ’strategies’ fit this description).

The reductionist problem. The reductionist problem in philosophy is the belief that the continued dissection of problems into ever-finer constituent pieces will always lead to ever-more profound understanding and explanation.

If Joe appears angry at me, I might explain it by breaking it down into our past history, what happened to Joe this morning, and what I just said to him a moment ago. This might lead to a most constructive response – an empathetic inquiry, aimed at calming Joe and keeping me from a punch in the nose. So far, so good.

But breaking it down further – describing Joe’s blood type, the tension in his musculature, his level of serotonin, the grammatical structure of what I said to him – is not likely to either help Joe or prevent my face-punch. Yet reductionist thinking insists this is necessary to fully ‘explain’ what is going on, or to identify the ‘cause’ of the phenomenon in question.

Just as in the language claim, the real-world usefulness of a particular explanation is not a function of the depth of description used, but of the phenomenon requiring explanation.  To explain most management behavior, you simply don’t need to get to the level of biochemistry. You’re better off with commonsense language that describes human interactions.

The Commonsense Approach to Trust: Reciprocity. 

Mr Zak himself – in passing – quite correctly points out the fundamentally reciprocal nature of trust. One party takes a risk, and the other party then returns that trust – or not. This is indeed a critical observation about the dynamics of trust – it is a reciprocating relationship.

But it’s a commonsensical observation, almost definitional – it is something we know by life, not something we need neuroscience to prove for us.

This fundamental truth was famously stated by Henry L. Stimson: “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him.” Ernest Hemingway said the same thing: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” It was well known to Abraham Lincoln (“The people when rightly and fully trusted will return the trust,”) and to Warren Bennis (“Trust is the lubricant that makes it possible for organizations to work.”) Mr Zak himself cites Adam Smith as having said much the same.

Neither Stimson, Hemingway, Lincoln or Bennis required neuroscience to validly know whereof they spoke. Yet they clearly understood the fundamental nature of reciprocity to the functioning of trust.

Trust “strategies.” Here are the eight “strategies” or “management behaviors” (he uses both terms) that Zak identifies:

Recognize excellence; give people discretion; enable job crafting; share information broadly; intentionally build relationships; facilitate whole person growth; show vulnerability; and induce “challenge stress.”

Zak derived these strategies from experiments and surveys that analyze the production of oxytocin in various situations, and then ‘tested’ the impact of those trust-inducing behaviors on business performance.

One doesn’t need to question the validity of either his experiments or his ‘tests’ to ask a much simpler question: what does this language add to our understanding of trust in business, compared to other languages?

Now we might ask: if you wanted to list strategies of reciprocation to enhance trust, what might you do?  You might:

  1. recognize excellence, which probably results in appreciation and more excellence
  2. give people discretion in their jobs, and see if they reciprocate positively
  3. enable job crafting, to which people will reciprocate by improving performance
  4. share information broadly, which probably drives reciprocal behaviors of sharing and intelligent use of that information
  5. intentionally build relationships, which results in yet more relationship-building
  6. facilitate whole person growth, which probably results in gratitude and performance
  7. show vulnerability, to which people reciprocate by sharing their own vulnerabilities, creating more trust.

That is: seven of Zak’s eight strategies (all but “induce challenge stress”) follow self-evidently from a simple pragmatic definition of trust as a human process of reciprocation. Indeed, we can add a few that he might have missed, e.g. thanking people for favors done, or recognizing emotional states in others.

In other words: Zak’s “strategies” are commonsensical, and derived from basic principles of human interactions that even he recognizes. Neuroscience adds nothing to their understanding.


Let me be clear. I’m not challenging neuroscience itself. In certain spheres (like medicine or pharmacology), understanding the role of oxytocin and other chemicals in our brain and on our behavior is important, even vital. Biochemistry is the “right” language for such endeavors.

But for other fields – in particular, business – the language of biochemistry is like knitting with mittens on. It is worse than useless because it promises much and delivers little. Other languages are better suited and more productive to understanding the challenges of organizing, leading and managing groups of human beings.

And if you didn’t do it the first time, go back and watch John Oliver’s take on the same issue (he gets down to business at about minute 10:00).

Can we get rid of this zombie idea yet?

10 replies
  1. Richard Moroney
    Richard Moroney says:

    I hadn’t thought of this until I read your post, Charlie, but maybe this zombie description is like “fake news”. It resonates well with a select audience and by pandering to their reductionist approach. This simultaneously builds trust with them (through confirmation bias) and reduces their desire to look for other descriptions that might explain their observations.

    What is your take on the inducing “challenge stress” to build trust? I haven’t read the HBR article but can imagine this might be helpful, or might blow up in your face!

  2. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Richard, thanks for the comments. Zak’s “challenge stress” involves setting achievable goals for a team, which has the effect of enhancing the drive for teamwork (and hence the indicator hormones and chemicals). It makes perfect sense to me, and it’s not quite the same as the reciprocity principal at work, but again, it doesn’t require the heavy artillery of brain chemistry to describe, explain or manage this phenomenon.

  3. Greg Woodley
    Greg Woodley says:

    There is a quote attributed to Einstein that may have arisen as a paraphrase of another of his quotes, commonly given as “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
    As you say the whole oxytocin thing just makes things more complicated than they need to be.

  4. john gies
    john gies says:

    I am provoked by your point of view. I agree with you that behavior forms the basis of trust. I would add that if we understand the impact of the way we interact with each other and how that affects the neurochemicals, we can reinforce the “state” we want to create with people.

    A simple example might be that, I am stressed about a deadline and someone asks for my help. If I am short with them, they could react from their amygdala and fight, run or freeze. As that mechanism is triggered, they are no longer in the collaborative creative space (the part of the brain) from where I want my team operating. Being aware of that potential I can choose to respond in a different way to their interruption and change the chemical response they have.

    If we work with people that consistently trigger the amygdala, chances are if we develop any trust it will be diminished. Because it doesn’t feel good and if people don’t feel good it is hard to trust.

    Perhaps, the science is not exact. Yet, there are a number of studies where chemical transmitters enhance trust. Here is one from the University of Zurich. Maybe behavior and chemistry go together? Maybe for some understanding the chemistry of why we want to reciprocate helps them understand trust beyond the “nice to have”.

    All the best,

    • Charles H Green
      Charles H Green says:

      John, thanks for your thoughtful comment (actually, your comments are always thoughtful).

      I think in some ways we are in “violent agreement.” To take your example, if I speak harshly with someone, and they “fight, run or freeze,” I completely agree with you that that phenomenon works through the amygdala, that it diminishes trust, etc.

      The key part of your comment, to me, is “being aware of that potential, I can choose to respond a different way…”

      My point is that you ALREADY KNOW, in a powerful and pragmatic way, that being short with someone is very likely to cause them to “fight, run or freeze,” become less collaborative, less trusting, etc. The added knowledge that this reaction is triggered chemically through the amygdala is interesting, perhaps, but doesn’t really tell you very much new about how you should and shouldn’t react. That’s one of those things we learn in kindergarten (and of course have to re-learn later, I admit).

      Imagine two people who are short with someone and who trigger the “fight run or freeze” reaction in the other party. One person knows about the amygdala and neurons; the other person doesn’t. Is one person more likely than the other to behave differently? I would argue not.

      We already know, through our eons of highly tuned, evolutionarily developed instincts, just how we’re going to cause other people to react when we speak that way to them. That reaction was known to people in the 19th century before we understood brain science, and the 18th, and in the time of Plato and Aristotle, and in the time of the pre-Socratics before that. The human knowledge of reciprocity is pretty deeply ingrained – think of the Golden Rule.

      I’m not arguing the science is as yet inexact – I’m sure it will get better. But when it gets better, it won’t make it easier to know we shouldn’t speak meanly to other people – we already know that fully. Where developed science WILL help, undoubtedly, is to improve medications, allow us to fine-tune pharmaceutical interventions, to map precise parts of the brain and chemical pathways, all of which can help with therapies, surgery, and general physiological knowledge of the workings of the body.

      Where I would argue it’s NOT going to make much difference is the day to day interactions with have with other human beings, particularly those at a gross level like anger, fear, happiness, love, etc. We are ALREADY highly developed entities who deeply know how to read other people. Knowing a bit about amygdallas and oxytocin isn’t going to make any difference at all at that level.

      Or so it seems to me. Thanks John for engaging on this important topic.

  5. Robin Carpenter
    Robin Carpenter says:

    (Written by Robin Carpenter)
    Hello Charlie:

    Good thinking (writing) on the Zombie piece. I’ll go further; almost all “neuroscience” claims are vapid.

    Basically, some neuroscientist assigns some task or experience to a bunch of subjects, while monitoring their brains for signs of activity (often fMRI imaging). He then writes a paper enunciating that he has located which part of the brain is responsible for (anger, joy, cognition, fear….pick one) – as if location explains anything.

    Well, location might explain (or elucidate) SOMEthing, but not much.

    Have I told you the story about the roadside restaurant that had a large sign advertising “Square Eggs”? One day a man stops in and challenges the possibility. So the proprietor says “No, no, really…..come with me” and ushers the guest around back to the chicken coop. He points to one of the chickens and says “See that brownish chicken there with the white tail? THAT’s the one!” So the visitor stands there gawking and says “Well, GAAAWLY!” and goes away in wonderment.

    That’s what many of the “brain study” claims are like.


  6. Mark Hurwich
    Mark Hurwich says:

    Love that you name this, Charlie, although I do have mixed reactions. It feels like much neuro-in-business simply invokes fake science to legitimize someone’s “new” approach. As you say, it’s needless complication. Case in point: I didn’t need to know about neurotransmitters to not trust certain of those guys.

    On the other hand I find some of the neuroscience useful if only as an additional reminder that we’re not computers, we’re biological, and that has consequences. So when I learned that upset produces cortisol…and it takes about 20 minutes for it to abate…and that my thinking process will have hidden distortions I literally can’t overcome during that period…I became more likely to take a time out than I was before. So even though I knew the wisdom of “act while the iron is warm” (not hot), that little neuro-factoid made it easier for me to wait. (It’s not just the weight of data, but also the release of shame when I thought it was just me.)

    And, maybe I’m just succumbing to a “square egg” potential alluded to in the comment above, but the neuroscience research that’s identified specific brain function and tied it to business practices has also generated useful insights for me. This is why I’m a Srini Pillay fan–his work has added to understanding things like “imposter syndrome” and how to overcome it that transcends anything else I’ve seen.

    So…can we allow that some neuroscience is zombie BS…but maybe not all of it?

    • Charlie Green
      Charlie Green says:

      Very thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary. Thanks for breaking it down a bit more finely. Your points make a lot of sense.


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