business analysis: lessons from Phineas Gage

Screenshot: Business analysis is believed to be objective and analytical.  In particular, it is idealized as being free of emotion.  Tools of the trade include economics, finance, statistics and all of their toolboxes: e.g., NPV, CAPM, SWOT, Porter analysis, Bayesian statistics, betas, and Black-Scholes.

Neuroscience, however, has long since annihilated this assertion—that our reasoning is fundamentally logic derived. To varying degrees several texts have presented the latest brain science, including Descartes’ Error and testimonially, Head Cases . Later treatments of the topic have been taken up in a mass of literature, including the commercially successful Blink, and more obscure but fairly titled Gut Feelings.

It turns out that reason itself—that underlying our success in business and general human interaction—is a function of emotion. In fact, as neurologist Antonio Damasio reveals, our reasoning—from the mundane of deciding where to park to the complex of deciding where to work–actually requires emotion to even happen. We needn’t actively input emotion into decisions to enhance them, rather it is already there driving the very reasoning we have inaccurately concluded to flow cleanly from “pure logic.”

Screenshot: A fair portion of neuroscience breakthroughs stems from the opportunity afforded by traumatic brain injury and the subsequent study of patients.  The most famous patient in neuroscience remains Phineas Gage, through whose skull the pictured tamping iron got accidentally shot at high velocity, tearing away a large portion of the frontal cortex. Gage reportedly sat up and began talking after the accident. He survived. He could even compute.  But gone, as time revealed, were an emotional palette, socially sanctioned human interaction, faculties of judgment, and the reasoning required to plan for the future, run a business, earn a living, and live a meaningful life. In fact, there are great examples of patients with traumatic brain injury and severely diminished capacities to function, whose I.Q.s remained in tact.  When connectivity is lost between the brain’s emotional seat in the amygdala, and its thoughtful seat in the frontal cortex, the human reasoning on which we depend is lost.

Well confirmed by now is a brain based, structurally defined interdependence between what are still often mistakenly deemed whole, independent spheres of reason and emotion. Undeniable is how fundamental to high stakes decision-making emotion can be–from our selection of marital partners to split second decisions about personal safety.

Some of the best decisions in business appear emotion rich: The testimony of whistleblowers in cases like Enron and WorldCom hardly depended on simple calculus (many people could read the documents available to the whistleblowers, but only one became a whistleblower). What kept whistleblowers up at night was not a quantitative P&L but a nonquantitative visceral feeling about it, one of the unshakable cues that have evolutionarily been indispensible for premium human decision making and survival.  In business, finding people who can read calculus is generally not so hard.  Identifying those with the emotional functionality to act in light of the calculus appears harder.  Enterprisers have the burden of systematically identifying talent with such functionality.


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