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This Is Your Brain On Management

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticSeptember 2, 2012 9:22 PM


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Have you ever wondered [strike]whether[/strike] how the brains of managers work? New research from a group of German neuroscientists and management experts reveals all: Dissociated Neural Processing for Decisions in Managers and Non-Managers

The results were rather remarkable:

Using fMRI, the researchers found that managers' brains were less active in a number of areas, compared to the brains of non-managers, when doing the same task. By contrast, managerial brains were more active than the others only in one small area (caudate nucleus). See above.


So overall, managers had less brain activation during the task. Does that mean they have defective brains? Could this be a neurobiological explanation for the behaviour of Pointy Haired Boss and David Brent?

Not at all, say the authors. The lower activation in the brains of managers means that they were more efficient:

the managers might have found a more efficient way of sorting the presented words. This might have enabled them to faster decide for their preferred category... Managers as expert decision-makers would seek to find a rule or heuristic on which they could base their decisions. According to previous studies, this phase of rule identification would involve the caudate nucleus

While non-managers wasted brainpower on thinking through the task with several areas of their cerebral cortex, the managers (so to speak) downsized their neurological expenditure by outsourcing the work to their caudate nucleus, an area responsible for applying a simple but effective rule.

One of the problems with these kinds of group-comparison fMRI studies is that under-activation can equally well be glossed as "deficient" or "efficient". Curiously, it usually ends up being whichever fits with the author's narrative.

That's assuming you agree that the task was about "decision making". It consisted of seeing a long series of pairs of words, one "individualistic" such as 'power' and one "collectivistic" such as 'harmony'. Participants just had to pick which word they liked best. There were no right or wrong answers. I'm not sure what kind of manager would have to do anything like that in real life. Maybe a manager of a fridge magnet poetry manufacturer?

That's also assuming the results are solid. The authors provide few details on the fMRI methods (the main results are said to be "cluster-level corrected at p less than 0.0013", which is an unusual threshold to use and an extremely strict one (0.05 cluster-level is more common; this is about 40 times stricter).

Still. If you do buy these results, the message is: management is literally about using as little of your brain as possible...


Caspers S, Heim S, Lucas MG, Stephan E, Fischer L, Amunts K, and Zilles K (2012). Dissociated neural processing for decisions in managers and non-managers. PloS one, 7 (8) PMID: 22927984

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