MIT Brain Scans Show That Entrepreneurs Really Do Think Different

A brain scan study at MIT suggests that entrepreneurs are more likely to use both sides of their brains when making decisions.

Your widgets are selling slow and steady. But the kids are demanding widgets with Wi-Fi. Should you bet the farm on a new product line or concentrate on incremental improvements in widget production?

Our brains have two basic problem-solving strategies. Exploitation means taking advantage of what you already know, concentrating deeply on a current task to optimize performance and efficiency. Exploration means taking a step back from the task at hand to allow your mind to roam flexibly among alternatives. Leadership in the age of flux calls for "ambidextrous" minds that can switch back and forth between the two strategies when called for. A new study from MIT suggests that one component of this ambidextrousness involves tapping your creative and logical sides at the same time.

Researchers from the neuroscience department and business school collaborated to scan the brains of 63 subjects, divided between self-described entrepreneurs and managers, when engaged in a game. The game involved virtual slot machines; to maximize returns you had to decide when to keep playing the same machine (an exploitative choice) or try a new one (an explorative choice).

The entrepreneurs in the study, perhaps surprisingly, weren't any more likely to engage in exploration. But when they did, they were more likely to activate both the right and left sides of their frontal cortex. Managers mainly stuck to the left side, which is associated with logic and structured thinking. The right side, on the other hand, is associated with creativity and emotion.

Successful decision-making isn't necessarily about doing more exploration than exploitation. It's in the timing--knowing when to shift between the two forms of thinking. A question for further research is whether entrepreneurs' brains function this way because of the kind of decisions they're used to making, or whether people with these more coherent brains are more likely to end up as entrepreneurs. “It’s a nature versus nurture question," said Professor Maurizio Zollo, the lead author of the study.

[Photo: Flickr user laimagendelmundo]

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17 Comments

  • I find true entrepreneurs can make the right gut reaction. others are not so deft and need to think it through. fine. but even some of those think it through too much. then there are those who don't think at all, making wrong gut decisions, or late or no decision. I think that covers the spread. and yes, you can learn it - by flying wingman to a natural entrepreneur. also, a gut decision requires a few rapid fire decisions; it is not a 'use the force' moment.

  • David Sollars

    Ms. Kamentz, as a serial entrepreneur, I've found you have to use all of your abilities to make the best decisions. Afterall, leadership is about effective, often rapid and increasingly transparent decision making on the part of entrepreneur. Thank you for highlighting what I look for in partners and collaborators, the ability to use both sides of the brain. Getting stuck in a particular channel of thinking is as dangerous to an organization as digging in against all logic to defend your personal blind spot. You better be right!
    Great reminder to stay open to all of our potential capabilities and build teams and organizations that are balanced. Enjoy the thoughtful discussions.

  • Mitcho17

    Those readers familiar with Ned Herrmann's  Whole Brain Thinking model will know just how powerful  the statement "...knowing when to shift between the two forms of thinking..." is.  Being able to switch your thinking is one thing... knowing when to is critical

  • Doc Gee

    Gee I wonder how many of the so-called "entrepreneurs" also identified as scientists, artists, musicians or designers, i.e. creatives who are whole brain in their decision making and scenario building process.

  • Eforio

    Are you familiar with the MBTI Temperament Test? This test has been used expensively by companies in identifying temperaments. According to the MBTI the designers, musicians, artists fall into the Artisan Type which have a psychological preference for Sensing (Paying attention to physical reality, what I see, hear, touch, taste, and smell) while entrepreneurs fall into Rationalist Type and have a preference for Intuition (Paying the most attention to impressions or the meaning and patterns of the information I get).

    Artists and Designers have more of a goal and an idea of what they want to create then go about doing it: get the ingredient they need, models, and idea of their muse. They rely on casual thinking with a focus on physical reality. Entrepreneurs on the other hand use effectual thinking with a focus on patterns and meaning.

    Causal vs Effectual thinking :
    One of the main difference between entrepreneurs and managers/executives is that entrepreneur use effectual thinking opposed to casual thinking. In other words, they are like an Iron Chef who has to make a great meal with already present ingredients opposed to a Chef who is given a budget and asked to make a great meal. As a result great Entrepreneurs do not make decisions based on predictive models, expected returns, marke research, competition, etc. Instead, they they try to sell first and aim second. Further  they use a principle of affordable loss opposed to expected return. There is an underlining beliefe that if you could predict a market accurately then someone smarted with more resources would take the advantage. Further, the future is created, so to the extend that you can make it, then its up to you as an entrepreneur on how successful you are.

  • disqusreader74

    I can't get past the grammar snafu in this title to even read the article.  The adverb should be "differently", not the adjective, "different".  Adverbs support verbs (i.e. 'think' in this case) and adjectives support nouns.  Time to fire the editor. 

  • Phil

    Get over yourself. Nobody cares about such things. And since when is a typo a reason for somebody to lose their job! <- You'll surely notice that this is an exclamation point and not a question mark.

  • Disqusreader74

    Well actually, I care about such things so your assumption that "nobody cares" is wrong.   And you should care about such things; the more we find grammar misuse acceptable, the more we slowly decline as a society. Just because Apple uses it in an advertisement doesn't mean the rules have changed and that it is suddenly correct. This isn't about my getting over myself; this is about protecting the beauty of the written word.  You sound really angry so you can feel free to ignore my desire to put my thoughts out there.

  • Someone

    Yes, "Think Different", largely thanks to the classic Apple campaign, is well on its way to becoming a standard idiom.  The usage seems perfectly acceptable in this context.

  • Tibidabo

    "Think Different" probably makes reference to the famous advertising slogan for Apple.

  • Enricopo

    I liked it!! I consider myself an enterpreneur, and I also have a company. I'm good on math and languages so.