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Ernst Pöppel, Professor für medizinische Psychologie

Psychologie des Unternehmertums - Teil I

(Wir veröffentlichen nachfolgend einen Beitrag von Ernst Pöppel, Psychologe und Biologe, bis 2008 Professor an der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in München für medizinische Psychologie. Der Beitrag beschäftigt sich mit selten thematisierten Aspekten – erfolgreichen – Unternehmertums aus Sicht von Psychologie und Hirnforschung. Den Beitrag veröffentlichen wir im englischen Original, das Summary haben wir in deutscher Übersetzung vorangestellt)

"Die Hirnforschung und Erforschung der Psychologie der letzten Jahre führte zu neuen Erkenntnissen über die menschliche Natur, das heißt: Wie wir denken und wie wir uns verhalten. Aber bieten uns diese Erkenntnisse auch Ideen und Verwendungen, die in der Wirtschaft und darüber hinaus von Vorteil sein können?

Um diese Frage(n) beantworten zu können, verfahre ich nun wie folgt:

Zunächst möchte ich in Teil A einige biologische, neurophysiologische und
psychologische Fakten betreffend unser Hirn und Verhalten beschreiben. Diese Beschreibung vereint Kenntnisse interdisziplinärer sowie internationaler Art. Manch grundlegendes Wissen ist notwendig, um Überlegungen über wirtschaftliche Auswirkungen mit einer soliden Basis pflegen zu können und zu vermeiden, dass man Gemeinplätze ausspricht. Eine Missachtung dieser grundlegenden Fakten führt zu erfolgloser Kommunikation und falschen Entscheidungen von Unternehmern.

Offensichtlich ist erfolgreiches Unternehmertum ein Schlüsselfaktor für die
Entwicklung und Aufrechterhaltung einer erfolgreichen Wirtschaft. Daher möchte ich den zweiten Teil, Teil B, auf die Folgerungen aus Teil A richten, indem ich folgenden Fragen nachgehe:

Welches sind die Trugschlüsse und Fehler, für die Unternehmer aufgrund unserer menschlichen Natur anfällig sind?

Was sollten Unternehmer über das Fällen von Entscheidungen wissen?

Welche biologischen, neurophysiologischen und psychologischen Einschränkungen sollten Unternehmer berücksichtigen, wenn sie neue Produkte und Dienstleistungen vermarkten?

Zur einfacheren Orientierung zwischen den Argumenten und zur besseren Erinnerung daran, was alles präsentiert wurde, verwende ich die Zahlen von 1 bis 10, wobei sich jede Zahl auf bestimmte Erkenntnisse aus der Hirnforschung und Psychologie und deren mögliche Auswirkungen bezieht."

Psychology of Entrepreneurship
Research in brain science and psychology from the last years has given new insights into human nature, i.e. how we think and how we behave. Do these insights also provide ideas and applications, which can be of benefit in the field of economics and beyond? To answer these questions, I proceed here in the following way:

First, in parts A, I want to describe some biological, neurophysiological and psychological facts about our brains and our behavior. This description brings together knowledge on an interdisciplinary and international level. Some basic knowledge is necessary to foster considerations of economic implications with a solid basis, avoiding talking in platitudes. Neglect of these basic facts results in unsuccessful communication and wrong decisions of entrepreneurs.

Obviously, successful entrepreneurship as a key factor in the development and maintenance of successful economies. Therefore, in the second parts B, I would like to focus on the implications of parts A guided by the following questions:

I. What are fallacies and mistakes entrepreneurs are prone to because of our human nature?

II. What should entrepreneurs know about decision-making?

III. Which biological, neurophysiological and psychological constraints should be considered by entrepreneurs when bringing new products and services to the market?

For easier navigation through the arguments and better memory of what is presented, I play with the numbers 1 to 10; each number is associated with specific insights from brain science and psychology and its potential applications.

A 1. Unity of consciousness
It may come as a surprise, but with respect to our topic I will start with the origin of life. The development of life on earth emerged jointly with the invention of the ability to make "decisions". Already unicellular organisms are able to move into a specific pre-programmed direction, to find a place with better living conditions. To do so, a "decision" on the basis of the available information is necessary, to decide between better and worse. Decisions and life are fundamentally linked.

The precondition of this close tie between decision and life is "movement" in its original sense. Who is moving has to decide – in a practical sense to move from one place to another, in a metaphorical sense to change conditions and situations. Decisions presuppose that the whole organism is involved. This integrity, the necessary unity or identity of the organism, is always the target value of a decision. And only if a decision has taken place, an action can be executed.

However, the motion of an organism can only take place in one direction. All information processing serves the purpose to orient the organism to this one direction. With respect to higher living beings, this fact enforces the unity of consciousness as a necessity.

At every moment, the brain has to filter something specific out of the immense amount of information it has to deal with. And this something is always one something. This implies that we refer to the unity of consciousness, despite the multiplicity of (implicit) parallel processing in the brain.

B 1. Implications
Like maintaining the integrity of the organism by moving to better conditions, the totality of a company has to be always the target of a decision. This requires like in organisms a reliable information transfer between different compartments. In the moment such mutual information is disrupted (as it happens after certain brain injuries), instability is the consequence. This can both be observed in the economic and political sphere.

Another consequence of the necessary unity of consciousness is that "multitasking" in a strict sense (to execute several tasks simultaneously on the conscious level) is not possible. The subjective present (lasting approximately three seconds) allows only one content of consciousness. Choosing a longer time interval, for example half an hour, we are of course able to cope with different tasks. However, this "asynchronous multitasking" needs a special logistics of the brain to store information in the working memory and to recall it again. To be efficient, high concentration is required. If a company or even an entire country would stay away from multitasking for just one hour a day, and if everybody would focus his or her attention on just one task, the greatest push for innovation could be expected.

A 2. Two hemispheres, a duality of brain functions and two states of consciousness
The left and the right hemispheres of our brain represent different functions. For most of us, the left hemisphere is considered to be dominant, because most language functions are located on the left side. Furthermore, analytical functions and inferences about what is going on are associated with the left. The right hemisphere is associated with spatial cognition, with registering what is going on and also emotional evaluation. In other words, the left hemisphere is responsible for detailed analytic information processing, the right hemisphere for more holistic processing.

However, both hemispheres are connected, a connection which is necessary to allow for the unity of consciousness. The conceptual competence of the left hemisphere is not separated from the pictorial competence of the right hemisphere. Concept and image are complementary and represent different aspects of our knowledge about events and facts.

A duality of functions is also given concerning the repertoire of the mind. There is always "something" in our mind, i.e., we see, feel, believe or want something. But this content of consciousness, the "what", can only be made available when logistical functions are operative. Without "how" functions no content could be made available. At first we have to think about the "power supply" of the brain, i.e. the activation machinery that fluctuates throughout the day and force us to sleep regularly. The second logistical function is the temporal organization of functions, which are represented in spatiotemporal patterns, and which are glued together with a temporal machinery. And the third logistical function is attention, the ability to be focused on something. "What" and "how" functions are necessary to be able to perceive, to think and to act, to be conscious.

And there is another aspect of duality that has great importance: Approximately at the age of four, humans develop the ability to be aware of being conscious of oneself; and in discovering this, it is also evident for the child that other human beings also have consciousness; this research is referred to as having a "theory of mind". This implies the possibility to understand the situation of another human being, to take a position external to oneself. Therefore, in principle, we have two states of consciousness: an internal self-related perspective and an external perspective.

These two perspectives of an internal and external point of view are quite important with respect to decisions: It has been shown that moral and economic judgments elicit very different brain patterns when judgments are made from the "first -person perspective" compared to the "third-person perspective"; the alternatives are: "I should (not) do it" – "One should (not) do it."

B 2. Implications
The dual organization of the brain can also instruct entrepreneurs in decision-making. Detailed analytic information processing together with the view for the whole, analysis and synthesis are necessary to reach excellent decisions, which promote future creative processes. It is not sufficient to have only an analytic view towards problem-solving, but at the same time it is also not sufficient to have only a holistic perspective. The complementarity of paying attention to details and to the whole provides stability.

The ability to take an external perspective allows thinking about facts and circumstances in an abstract way. The internal perspective is on the other hand the basis of sensitivity for others, the source of empathy. With respect to enterprises the implications should be to look for the right balance in strategic behavior. Hierarchical relations between decision-making levels are necessary to be capable of acting operatively. Heterarchy is necessary to involve all members of a company – independent of their position – in the knowledge generation of the company. Hierarchy and heterarchy have to be conceptually separated, however, both have to be actualized to promote creativity and to foster innovations. The challenge of leadership is to develop sensitivity for the frame of reference and to communicate and even teach the two perspectives: In which situation does hierarchy, in which does heterarchy apply? It has to be understood by everybody that responsibility requires a hierarchical structure, whereas knowledge creation occurs within a non- hierarchical environment; the latter is also essential for the development and maintenance of a genuine corporate identity.

A 3. Three types of nerve cells in the brain, and three types of knowledge
All nervous systems consist of three types of nerve cells only: receptors or sensory cells (approximately 500 million in humans) receiving information from outside and informing us about the world; motor cells (approximately 4 million) representing the output and making actions possible; and the great intermediate net (more than 100 billion), or what we usually refer to as "the brain".

The receptors represent the specific adaptation of an organism to its environment. The human light receptors, for example, can only process a very narrow band of electromagnetic waves. Outside this band, we are blind to the rest of the world, which actually implies that we are "blind" to most of the things that happen around us. The motor cells regulate the motion apparatus, the inner organs and ensure the stability of the organism. And they also control the emotional expression with our face muscles.

Concerning the intermediate net, every nerve cell distributes its activity to approximately 10,000 other cells; and it also receives and integrates information from approximately 10,000 other cells. Because of this principle of divergence and convergence of nerve cells, in other words because of the spatially distributed activities of parallel working elements within this neuronal net, all psychological domains represented in the brain are highly interconnected: There is no percept without memory, without emotional evaluation and the planning of an action.

Such a "trinity" is also a characteristic of human knowledge. When we refer to "knowledge" we usually concentrate only on the consciously available or explicit knowledge. However, modern brain science reveals that there are three types of knowledge: explicit knowledge, but also implicit or intuitive knowledge and, third, pictorial knowledge.

Explicit knowledge can be represented in words or signs and is associated more with the left hemisphere of the brain. Implicit knowledge is referred to also as "tacit" knowledge, and is for instance, dominant in our ritual or automatized behavior. Pictorial knowledge is more associated with the right hemisphere, and can in itself be triangulated into visual perception (because "seeing is knowing"), topological or geometrical knowledge represented, for example, in diagrams or histograms, and, third, into episodic knowledge.

Episodic knowledge is built up of the pictures of unique experiences from our past, which are imprinted in our memory. With episodic memory, we are able to time travel to our past and to contact not only these episodes, but also to contact our "self". Many of these pictures are re-coded and newly staged in the way that we ourselves are part of the image; we become our own "Doppelgänger". In this way, pictorial knowledge represents and is necessary for our personal identity; we know who we are, because we can double ourselves. (The tragedy of Alzheimer's disease is no longer being able to time travel to the past because of the loss of memory and, thus, being unable to consciously confirm one's identity.)

B 3. Implications
Interestingly, the output cells are much smaller in number than the receptor cells. Once a decision for an action has been made, the effort to execute an action is much lower than information processing before the decision. With respect to entrepreneurs, this tells us that avoiding decisions at the right time can be very cost-intensive; one may be lost in an ocean of too much information to be processed. Complexity reduction is required, and one can learn from the brain that "informational garbage disposal" is most important.

The limitations of our senses, the blindness for most parts of the world can also be used as metaphor. Quite often entrepreneurs (like every person) tend to register only that information that corresponds to their expectations. The challenge for the entrepreneur is to orient the sensitivity of the information channels in such a way that relevant information from beyond the frame of expectations can be identified, incorporated and turned into creativity and action.

Implicit or intuitive knowledge works best the richer the working platform of our brain is. In implicit thinking, unconsciously relations are established between islands of knowledge, and potentially successful actions are acted out implicitly. Those actions become conscious if they seem to be successful; an insight is the result of this implicit processing and it can be accompanied by the so- called "Aha-experience". Therefore, strategic planning of entrepreneurs should incorporate intuitive knowledge to promote creativity and success.

A 4. Four functional domains of the mind, four rules of thinking, and four sources of error
There are only four functional domains of the mind, i.e., perceptions, memories, emotions and planned actions (or "volitions"). These provide the possible contents of our immediate experience. However, this modular representation of functions does not imply that these domains are isolated from each other, because of the architecture of the brain they are highly connected. In every mental act, many areas of the brain are involved simultaneously. Whatever is represented in our conscious mind is always colored by an emotion, has always a memory component; nothing is independent of each other, and the words we are using are often misleading: "Pure" rationality or emotionality is not possible.

The belief in such pure rationality goes back to the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, and is still dominant in the Western culture. Descartes formulated four rules of thinking (Discours de la Méthode, 1637), and our confidence that we are rationally thinking and acting is mainly attributable to Descartes' historical impact. The first rule demands to formulate a problem clearly and distinctly, without hastiness and prejudice. The second rule requires dividing a problem into its parts. Third, to solve a problem, one should start with the simple and proceed to the complex. The fourth rule is the most difficult one: All the ideas and facts to treat a problem have to be taken care of, and a problem has to be considered in its entirety. These rules are of course quite relevant on an operational level like writing a budget. But can they be generalized? Are we capable to think without prejudices, to disentangle a problem before we know what the problem is, to consider all details? The answer is an emphatic "No", and this answer had already been given at approximately the same time by the English politician, businessman and philosopher Francis Bacon (Novum Organon, 1620) who discussed four errors of thinking.

The first error is to overrate our analytic abilities. Our think tools are imprinted and constrained by natural evolution. Imprinting by evolution is also the source of the second error; We usually are not aware of our personal and cultural imprinting, and we often enjoy our prejudices. The third error in thinking is related to the fact that we use language. Thinking can never be expressed perfectly in language; explicit communication with others represents only a subset of our thinking processes. And the fourth error is conditioned by the theories or expectations we adhere to on an implicit or explicit level. Theories and indeed prejudices are necessary to navigate effortlessly through our social and physical surroundings; they express the economical principle of our brain, i.e., to work efficiently and effortlessly. However, this conditioning usually implies not being aware of our hidden theories, which model our thinking.

B 4. Implications
The high interconnectivity of all brain cells ensures that there are for example no decisions, which are not neuronally embedded into processes of perception, emotional evaluation, memories of the past and intended actions. In a goal-directed decision all these processes are involved.

Descartes second rule of thinking, the necessity of dividing a complex problem into its parts, has the disadvantage that often in concentrating on the parts the problem as a whole is not considered adequately. This rule, on the one hand being predominantly responsible for the success of modern science, has, on the other hand, caused the splitting of societies, politics, economics and science into "partial cultures". Inter- or transdisciplinarity is the difficult but necessary challenge to overcome
this particularization. This is also true for companies because disconnected activities often ruin investigations and creativity for innovations.

For the entrepreneur, not being aware of the four errors of thinking, i.e. overrating our analytic abilities, neglecting the constraints of imprinting, counting too much on explicit communication and forgetting that we often rely on implicit theories and prejudices, is a serious obstacle for creativity and innovation. Therefore, knowledge and transparency about our human nature should be part of the corporate culture of a company. Everybody can know about it, and in fact knowledge about ourselves can easily be acquired.

A 5. Five ways of learning, five universal traits of personality and five mental operations for making decisions
Learning is the way to acquire knowledge, and five different ways of learning have to be distinguished. The first form is learning by imprinting. We enter the world with genetically determined programs, but they are confirmed or switched off in early phases of life. The second form of learning is habituation, which is actually a very intelligent way of learning. Habituation enables us to neglect irrelevant information and to free up mental space for focusing on the essential. The third form of learning is sensorimotor or procedural learning. Movement patterns like in sports, are acquired which are then implicitly stored. This kind of learning is basic to being able to write and read.

The fourth mode of learning is classical conditioning. A specific stimulus (for example an air blast onto the eye) releases an innate reflex (an instant closure of the eye), i.e. an unconditioned stimulus drives an unconditioned response. If another stimulus repeatedly precedes an unconditioned stimulus, this new stimulus, which at first was irrelevant, serves as a notification to release the reflex; it becomes the so-called conditioned stimulus, and it elicits the unconditioned response. With classical conditioning, something which may have been meaningless in the beginning is now associated with a response. The fifth form of learning is learning by trial-and-error (also called operant conditioning) or learning by consequences. The basic idea is that successful action is imprinted, because success causes satisfaction of needs.

It may come as a surprise, but every human being can be described with reference to only five different traits, the "big five", and they represent anthropological universals being independent of cultural background. The five personality domains are: extraversion versus introversion, emotional stability versus instability, placidity versus aggression, openness versus reticence, diligence versus laziness. Despite this small number of traits, individuality and personal identity is not an illusion; every person is unique, representing a special position in a five-dimensional space (mathematically speaking).

And the number five can also be identified when we make decisions, as they are based on five mental operations. First, facts and situations have to be determined, i.e. have to be classified. Second, these classifications have to be compared, and comparison can take place with respect to quality or quantity. Third, results of a comparison allow choices between alternatives, this choice being, fourth, the basis of a decision. The fifth step is then an action following the preceding decision. The accomplished action opens the next cycle to create new mental categories.

B 5. Implications
Advanced societies and their economies require "lifelong learning". However, because our entire mental repertoire is mostly conditioned in the early years of life, it is an absolute necessity to cater for the right balance of abundance of provided possibilities and adequate time to learn in this first imprinting phase.

In a metaphorical sense, what is appropriate for societies is also appropriate for companies to achieve a high level of creativity and innovation. Members of the company should be offered possibilities and time to develop ideas. Interdisciplinary teams are an excellent way to enhance the richness of production of innovative ideas.

With respect to advertisement of services and products, the fourth form of learning, i.e. classical conditioning, should not be underestimated. With classical conditioning, a meaningless stimulus or event becomes, via repetition, meaningful and triggers a response. Because of this effect, which may be positive or negative, the entrepreneur has to consider the market environment carefully. The entrepreneur should also not forget that he himself could be the target of classical conditioning. Especially for decision processes, classical conditioning may provide a hidden framework.

Learning by trial-and-error or learning by consequences is also of importance for companies. Obvious rewards for the staff are of course money; but also social appreciation or affiliation with the company is important. However, fundamental for this type of learning is activity to test situations and conditions. If spontaneous activity of this kind is too much restricted within the company, employees learn less. Here we can also see a source of creativity by harvesting serendipity. Often consequences cannot be anticipated; if a chance event or a sudden insight, which was not anticipated, results in a feeling of satisfaction, this event or this idea may be the beginning of a new product.

07. November 2016


Ernst Pöppel

Ernst Pöppel, Psychologe und Biologe, bis 2008 Professor an der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in München für medizinische Psychologie.