Swiss study: Disrupting the prefrontal cortex diminishes the human ability to build a good reputation

Personal branding may be inhibited by disruptions in the right lateral prefrontal cortex, according to new Swiss research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. More directly, the researchers report that the beneficial, generally costly, and widely sought after human social mechanism of having a good reputation, results from a building process that can be diminished by disrupting the prefrontal cortex. It was the damaged pre frontal cortex of famed and tragic neurology patient, Phineas Gage, that undergirded the heart of a previous post on business decision making and critical drivers thereof at the individual level:

What kept whistleblowers up at night [at Enron and Worldcom for example] was not a cold P&L but a sick feeling about the P&L, one of the unshakable visceral cues that have evolutionarily been indispensible for premium human decision making and survival.

In the current research, we’re seeing again that the brain doesn’t optimally function in decision making as an assemblage of separated spheres:

This effect [the diminished capacity to build a good reputation] occurs even though subjects’ ability to behave altruistically in the absence of reputation incentives remains intact, and even though they are still able to recognize both the fairness standards necessary for acquiring and the future benefits of a good reputation. Thus, subjects with a disrupted right lateral PFC no longer seem to be able to resist the temptation to defect, even though they know that this has detrimental effects on their future reputation.

This suggests an important dissociation between the knowledge about one’s own best interests and the ability to act accordingly in social contexts. These results link findings on the neural underpinnings of self-control and temptation with the study of human social behavior, and they may help explain why reputation formation remains less prominent in most other species with less developed prefrontal cortices.

Clearly, there exist interesting neurological indications for why individual parties may knowingly act against their own best interests. Of course this article speaks to neurological anomalies and how disconnects can happen at an individual level where both the brand and single brand builder are embodied.

For aggregated bodies like large organizations, however, with disparate decision-makers, and disaggregated profit centers, the degree of potential disconnect between known paths to good reputation building and certain conscious defects therefrom—due not to neurological deficits, but to law, costs, competitive interests for finite budgets, quarterly and other short-term performance metrics, disaffection, self aggrandizement and other temptations, seems multitudes greater. It’s why brands that consistently deliver over long periods of time are so personally compelling.


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