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Ernst Pöppel, Professor für medizinische Psychologie

Psychologie des Unternehmertums - Teil II

(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 - part II

A 6. Six basic emotions

In all our actions, emotions play implicitly or explicitly an important role. Emotions seem to be manifold; can they be classified in psychology? Surprisingly, this can be done in examining the emotional expressions in different cultures. Independent of the cultural frame, there exist only six basic emotions: fear, sadness, anger, disgust, joy and surprise.

How is it possible that these emotions are understood and experienced interculturally? The reason is again our genetically imprinted programs; they encompass these emotions as basic configuration. This enables us to experience certain reliability in intercultural communication, even without understanding the foreign language.

Why do we have emotions at all? Emotions are evaluation authorities of our brain to classify the relevance of experiences and events. Without reference to our own emotions, it is also not possible to take appropriate decisions.

Another important feature of emotions is that, compared to the other contents of our consciousness (perception, memories and actions), only emotions show longer time constants – up to hours and even longer if we think about sadness or happiness. Emotional evaluations are also necessary to ensure the continuity of the neuronal processes of our brain.

Sometimes patients suffer injuries in frontal areas of the brain. It has been shown that in these cases emotional evaluations are decoupled from other functions. Such patients show no difference with respect to intelligence, but they are no longer capable for meaningful decisions with long-term consequences. Without the emotional framing we are captured in a present without a future perspective.

B 6. Implications

Actually, the different muscles in our face have been selected during evolution to express our emotions, to inform other human beings about our specific internal feelings. In this way, the evolutionary selection processes determine the social sphere. As a consequence to restrict communication with others using email contacts only, neglects our human heritage. Working environments should be constructed in such a way that immediate personal contacts are possible.

Another important feature of our emotional apparatus is that decision processes are possible only if they are emotionally embedded. The loss of emotionality often causes irrational decisions. Successful entrepreneurs have an intuitive knowledge that authentic and communicable decisions need both: deliberate rationality and immediate emotionality. Only if decisions are also based on the level of emotions, targets will be pursued in the long run and the staff can identify themselves with these goals and are motivated to achieve them.

A 7. Seven competences in speech and communication

To communicate adequately, seven linguistic competences are necessary. First, to be able to speak, we have to produce speech sounds, i.e. we own "phonetic" competence. The reservoir of phonemes in the more than 5,000 languages still existing in the world is extremely similar; there exist approximately only 100 phonemes in all languages, which are genetically given. In learning our mother tongue, only a subset of these genetically given phonemes is confirmed, the other ones are turned off. Thus, the English, Chinese or German repertoires of speech sounds are different which shows up in the accents in speaking as grown-ups when we talk in a foreign language. In learning the words of a language, we build up "lexical" competence. Talking to each other, we normally use not only single words but whole sentences. To be able to do this, we need to know grammatical rules; this is our third "syntactic" competence.

Using words and correct grammar is necessary but not sufficient to transport meaning. Meaningful speech needs "semantic" competence. After certain brain injuries patients may lose semantic competence; their language may sound normal, but they don't say anything. And in communicating with language, we deploy specific intonations; with this "prosodic" competence we communicate our emotional states.

Talking also has to be adapted to the context at a given moment, and it has to match the specific situation. Adequate speech, i.e. understanding the frame of reference represents our "pragmatic" competence. The list of linguistic competences is completed by number seven, the "social" competence. In different cultures, in different social circumstances different linguistic habits are applied, which have to be taken into account to communicate successfully.

B 7. Implications

A successful decision-maker and entrepreneur has to master all seven linguistic competences, or has to be at least aware of their importance for successful negotiations, or to reach other people in an empathic way.

Usually, one of the greatest obstacles in intercultural communication is our inability to speak foreign languages free from accent. Accent-free speech is possible only if the repertoire of phonemes we learn up to puberty is widespread and encompasses at least three different languages, for example, in the European context, a Germanic, a Romanic and a Slavic language. To support this, language fluency should be the prominent target in a globalized world. A language is not just a medium to transfer information, but a language carries also its cultural environment.

A special reference has to be made to "semantic competence." It is often observed that spoken language is content-free, and that the person who speaks is searching for an idea that should be expressed. Similarly, one may observe that a person who speaks gives the impression of talking mainly to himself. Pragmatic and social competences can be learned and should be adequately employed; the necessary personal frame of the entrepreneur should be, however, to maintain one's authenticity.

A 8. Eight phases of life, eight corners, and a lucky number

Human life can be divided into eight phases, some being phases of transition. The first phase begins after conception and ends with entering the world. This prenatal phase is already essential for how we will master life until its end. The second phase is the first years up to approximately three or four years when, in particular, trust in the world may be established. A third phase follows: after we discover our own thinking and learn that other people also have a mind ("theory of mind"), and this phase is characterized by learning in kindergarten or primary school.

The fourth phase is puberty as a phase of transition and discovery of one's own self. It follows phase five when we learn and prepare ourselves for a professional life. Phase six is the longest phase, on average half of life expectancy, when we work and provide for ourselves and the social system financial security, for the young and the older generations. In the seventh phase after retirement we may start something new in the sense of "re-tiring", i.e. putting on new tires, or enjoying what we have accomplished previously. The phase eight is that of old age at the end of life, which may be in wisdom.

The number eight can also be used to illustrate another important result of modern neuroscience. Let us imagine a cube, which is transparent (a so-called "Necker cube"). The cube has eight corners, and it can be seen in two perspectives, either the front side ahead or the backside up front. This cube is a symbol for the dynamics of our perception. Once we are aware of the two perspectives, we are not able to avoid a change in perspective. Approximately every three seconds, one perspective transforms into the other one.

This openness for change is a characteristic of our entire cognitive apparatus. We keep something in mind for several seconds (identity of content of consciousness). Then, an inner decision process occurs, the brain wonders "Is there something new in the world?" If the new something is another perspective, this perspective enters consciousness. This change in consciousness points to "complementary" as an essential feature of our neuronal apparatus. Identity and change, stationarity and dynamics are complementary processes, which are basic characteristics of our brain.

It is not a secret that most people suffer from some kind of superstition. We all have a tendency to believe in supernatural powers. Here the magic number 8 comes in, which in China is considered to be a happy number promising wealth. The number 13 in some Western cultures is not attractive, and a ship should not leave the harbor on a Friday, a 13th of a month. Here a particular weakness of the human mind can be seen which affects human behavior both in a negative but also in a positive sense.

B 8. Implications

Socially and economically, an interesting aspect characterizes phase seven, the "generation plus". Humans in this phase of life are less homogeneous than humans in the preceding phases. Most of them want to allow for more individual interests and goals. For entrepreneurs, this individuality creates specific challenges in providing and advertising services and goods. Developing landscapes of needs and requests for the "generation plus" will certainly trigger innovative ideas.

A question which often comes up, is whether leadership and entrepreneurial competence can be learned. This is partly true, but from a psychological point of view certain features of a personality are determined in early phases of life like trusting in others or trusting in oneself, which is essential for successful work as an entrepreneur.

The complementarity of stationarity and dynamics should also guide the decision processes of an entrepreneur. On the one hand, what has been proven to be successful has to be conserved. On the other hand, openness for new situations and developments are essential.

A 9. Nine stumbling blocks in navigating through the world

In thinking, decision-making and acting, we can identify at least nine stumbling blocks or traps in reaching the adequate thought, the right decision and the appropriate action.

First, our evolutionary heritage results in a "disease" which I would like to call "monocausalitis". If we want to understand something, we usually are searching for only one underlying cause; and usually we find only one reason. However, because the world is mostly not as simple as we would like to have it, adequate comprehension of most situations and adequate problem-solving should be better based on "multicausal" strategies.

The second stumbling block is due to the way we display complex issues, for example, in using "boxological" drawings. Every picture is an abstraction, and abstraction neglects information. Schematic pictures represent specific states of a problem or situation; they are timeless pictures. The temporal correlation and interaction of the process dynamics of the elements are neglected and need an extra explicit simulation. Power Point presentations can be utterly misleading.

Third: The fact that we talk (or write) to each other opens up the language trap. Not everything what we think can be represented in language appropriately. This is particularly experienced in intercultural communication, which is typically characterized by misunderstandings.

The fourth trap is our dependency on the assessment of others. For example, the expected media coverage with respect to a decision and its consequences may influence the decision. The feedback through other persons or the media generates a frame of dependency. We may not be able to avoid this; however, we should be able to know that such a frame exists.

Stumbling block number five is blindness to chance events. Not all strategies and actions can be calculated rationally in advance. Sometimes serendipity plays a decisive role in finding creative new solutions.

The sixth trap is short-term thinking. To follow short-term plans and goals prevents long-term strategies. Tunnel vision and short-term actions may destroy future possibilities. Long-term strategy has to be robust with respect to short-term fluctuating scenarios.

Closely connected is trap seven, the myth of speed in thinking or acting. We often mistakenly mix up speed and high competence. Unfortunately, with this respect psychological research has made unfortunate contributions in judging intelligence by means of the speed of problem-solving. Wanting to be fast (and first) often prevents deepness in thinking.

A widely unknown source of errors is that we miss a "statistical sense". As the result of our evolutionary heritage and the imprinting of our brain, we are inclined to create simple categories and to treat problems in an effortless way. However, our lack of a statistical sense often leads to false interpretations of statistics, for example, in judging risks.

Stumble block number nine is the person we are – with all our human weaknesses. One of our worst enemies is laziness, another one is stupidity. Stupidity can be evil if one is not willing to take note of available knowledge. Self-staging and having no respect for others is another personal trap. Facing all these human weaknesses with self-transparency is necessary to be able to step out. And one should add the erotic trap, i.e. that decisions are sometimes made to attract somebody.

B 9. Implications

Every politician and entrepreneur should be aware of the listed nine stumbling blocks in reaching adequate thoughts, right decisions, and appropriate actions. Not enough transparency with respect to these obstacles could result in enormous social and economic expenses.

"Monocausalitis" prevents adequate problem-solving using "multicausal" approaches; "boxology" neglects information and temporal processes; the language trap narrows our communicative possibilities; dependency on the assessment of others may influence decisions in an inadequate way; blindness for serendipity prevents new creative ideas; short-term thinking and the myth of speed in thinking or acting may destroy future possibilities; our lack of a statistical sense may result in errors in judging risks;, and our human nature asks for self-transparency to avoid too many conflicts with ourselves and others.

10. The E-pyramid

The E-pyramid represents a summary of the basic conditions revealed by modern neuroscience and psychology to support socially responsible and economically successful decisions to stimulate an innovative culture.

The E-pyramid consists of four hierarchically ordered levels. At the lowest basic level, the most fundamental and ineluctable conditions are displayed. Our evolutionary heritage, the impact of an evolutionary process of millions of years, manifests itself in the imprinted constraints of our (physical and) mental apparatus.

Ethical principles, for example, responsibility with respect to employees, are another evolutionary feature. A human being without other humans is unviable, we need to be embedded in social communities, and we need to pursue pro-social behavior. And as evolutionary products, we also need to show environmental responsibility. Economic understanding is necessary to utilize resources on the personal, institutional and global level and to guarantee long-term stability.

On the second operational level, the principles underlying all our mental operations are to be found. To create easy access to new information and to confirm previous information with our sense organs is again an evolutionary experiment spanning millions of years. Interfaces must be designed in such ways that easy access to information and straightforward transformation into knowledge can be achieved.

Effortless processing of information characterizes the processing of stored and assessed information. Failures of effortless processing can be transferred with respect to institutions and companies in various ways. If the emotional context is missing, which is important for any mental activity, if – with respect to companies – the common motivation and enthusiasm is lost, effortless communication within the company breaks down.

In the evolutionary process, all living beings are programmed to act efficiently. In the biological context, acting is the execution of a goal-oriented movement. In reaching the goal, needs of the organism are satisfied and as a result a dynamical equilibrium is achieved. In companies, efficient action requires clear targets to motivate and to release creative processes.

The third level outlines individual and social goals. Foster individual creativity, i.e. to develop the emergence of something new out of the own consciousness, is a challenge for every individual. Legitimately, no simple formula can be given to meet this challenge. However, curiosity, incorporation of knowledge from other fields, openness for serendipity, reflection and consideration of the demonstrated human conditions will generate a supporting context. The need for emotional embedding for many performances was already discussed.

At the top of the pyramid we find the three strategic goals of a culture of decision and innovation. Since the beginning of life, reaching homeostatic balance has been the driving force. This equilibrium is never stable it is always dynamic. Paradoxically, such an implemented dynamics guarantees long-term stability. Excellence and energy are necessary to achieve dynamical stability.

Ignoring the knowledge condensed in the E-pyramid would imply ignoring human nature, human needs and strengths. Politicians as well as leaders can best support entrepreneurial activities and an innovative culture by integrating the demonstrated results from modern life sciences into their decision processes.

21. November 2016


Ernst Pöppel

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