Brain

If You Struggle With Authority, Science Says Blame Your Brain

People who want to be their own bosses -- like entrepreneurs -- may fall into this neurological group.
If You Struggle With Authority, Science Says Blame Your Brain
Image credit: Gary Burchell | Getty Images
Entrepreneur Staff
Associate Editor
5 min read

If you hate being told what to do, and that’s why you decided to become an entrepreneur -- or that’s why you aspire to launch your own venture -- brain science may have an explanation for your aversion to authority.

Some people are predisposed to “control aversion” given their neurological structure, according to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience. The control averse don’t like it when others hold sway over their decisions and actions and feel strongly inclined to rebel. This tendency is linked to strong brain connectivity between the parietal lobule and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, two regions “commonly associated with attention reorientation and cognitive control,” the study’s co-authors note.

Related: Surprising Truths About the Left and Right Halves of Your Brain (Infographic)

To get to the bottom of what makes some folks more defiant, the study’s researchers created a game for pairs of participants in which one player got to divide money between themselves and a partner. The researchers designed the game to provide the distributor player freedom of choice: That player could choose how much money to dole out at some points during the game, but every now and then, the player on the receiving end had the option of limiting their counterpart’s choice by requesting a minimum amount. The recipient could say something like, “Give me no less than X dollars.” When recipients requested a minimum, the majority of the distributors balked and awarded their peers less money than during the rounds in which they had freedom of choice.

Brain scans (fMRI) were used to observe activity in the parietal and frontal brain regions of the distributors, and researchers observed that those with more simultaneous activity in those two brain regions tended to lowball their recipient peers when controlled by them. The difference between the amount they gave when free versus when controlled was larger, on average, in those who displayed greater connectivity between those brain areas.

Then, when the games ended, each participant answered some questions to gauge their feelings from the exercise. The researchers found that those who reported feeling like the other person didn’t trust them, or who felt any sort of confusion about their partner’s decisions, had more simultaneous activity in the two brain regions in question, and they gave away less money when recipients wielded some control. Participants who met all of these criteria were determined to be more rebellious, or control averse. It seems they took recipients’ restrictions personally and reacted in a retaliatory manner.

While there’s no way, short of hopping into an MRI machine, to know whether your brain may be the culprit behind how you react to others’ attempts to control your decisions, you can recognize that some people chafe at receiving what they perceive to be arbitrary or condescending orders from on high -- a helpful insight for those who manage employees.

On the flip side, more compliant people just might not have the skill set to rebel, a study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology found. Their brains might not be as hardwired to express their desire to skip certain tasks through “silence or hesitation, groaning or sighing, laughing nervously, challenging the authority figure, refusing to carry on” or other means.

Related: The 5 Worst Leadership Qualities: How Many Does Your Boss Have?

Balanced leadership is crucial to keeping any organization well-oiled, and autonomy often pays dividends when bosses are able to strike the balance between empowering employees and condoning a free-for-all. A study out of the University of Birmingham last year found a connection between worker autonomy and job satisfaction.

To effectively grant autonomy, leaders have to provide employees with tools and training that will allow them to do their jobs successfully without hand-holding. Teams thrive and perform best when they’re built organically and members are allowed to select their own collaborators, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Authority and agility can work well together. Employers should encourage experimentation, offer choices when possible and ask employees about their goals -- and not simply listen, but adapt based on feedback, explains Entrepreneur contributor and HR expert Heather R. Huhman.

However, keep in mind that not everyone wants freedom at work -- or learns or benefits from it. Employees who perform routine tasks may not have the room for creative problem-solving and risk-taking, so when leaders expect this out of everyone within an organization, they put some people in a tight spot. Also, those who don’t want to be responsible for high-level decision-making at work may perceive that their boss is trying to evade or offload decision-making responsibilities.

The bottom line is, employers have to be selective and effective about which employees to offer a long leash to, based on the degree of creativity their jobs require, explains a study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. In the best of cases, being insightful about how your employees are wired can pay off in increased effort and teamwork -- a win for all.

Related video: How to Trick Your Brain to Love Criticism

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