Friday, November 21, 2008

The innovative brain

Lawrence et al. present preliminary neurocognitive data from matched groups of entrepreneurs and managerial controls that suggests that entrepreneurs represent an example of highly adaptive risk-taking behavior, with positive functional outcomes in the context of stressful economic decision-making. They suggest this 'functional impulsivity' may have evolutionary value as a means of seizing opportunities in a rapidly changing environment. Their neurocognitive tests distinguished the involvement of distinct processes in risky and risk-free decision-making. Referred to as 'hot' and 'cold' processes, these appear to be localized to distinct regions of the brain's frontal lobes. Risk-taking performance in the entrepreneurs was accompanied by elevated scores on personality impulsiveness measures and superior cognitive-flexibility performance. They conclude that entrepreneurs and managers do equally well when asked to perform cold decision-making tasks, but differences emerge in the context of risky or emotional decisions.

The pattern of performance seen on a gambling task in entrepreneurs reflects a behavioral index of risk-seeking or risk tolerance. Greater rewards (as well as greater losses) are available for those who bet more. If these impulsive risk-taking traits can be beneficial, can they be taught or otherwise imparted to the potential entrepreneur? What does it take to make an entrepreneur — is it an inherited, inbuilt characteristic, or is it acquired, and if so, can it be acquired by anyone? These cognitive processes are intimately linked to brain neurochemistry, particularly to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Using single-dose psychostimulants to manipulate dopamine levels, we have seen modulation of risky decision-making on this task9. Therefore, it might be possible to enhance entrepreneurship pharmacologically.

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