Are Entrepreneurs' Brains Wired Differently?

Entrepreneurs approach decision-making differently. But is that nature or nurture?

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By Scott Shane

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Many practitioners have long claimed that entrepreneurs think more creatively than the rest of us because they are "wired" differently. Recently, academic researchers have begun to take this notion seriously.

A research team of neuroscientists and business-school scholars from Italy and Switzerland recently used an fMRI to capture images of the brains of entrepreneurs and managers who undertook a task that involved searching for alternative approaches to solving a problem – something academics call "exploration." The researchers found that when the entrepreneurs sought out novel courses of action, they were more likely than the managers to use the right side of the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with creativity. The managers tended to use only the left side, which is related to logical thinking.

Why did the entrepreneurs' and managers' brains approach the problem differently? As one of the authors writes, the different experiences of entrepreneurs and managers might lead them to think differently. The types of situations that entrepreneurs routinely confront might condition their brains to approach problem-solving differently from managers, who regularly face different experiences. After all, much research shows that the human brain is highly "plastic" – it changes in response to skills and experiences.

Related: Focus on Opportunity, Not Income Inequality

The Swiss-Italian research team found some evidence to support this explanation. Managers whose jobs were less routinized tended to approach the tasks more similarly to the entrepreneurs than those whose jobs were more routinized.

But the entrepreneurs might approach the problem differently because they are "hard-wired" to use creativity. As the study's authors' acknowledge, people who are born with a tendency to be creative may be more attracted to entrepreneurship than management.

Genetics might be responsible for that "hard-wiring." Research I conducted with a colleague from the University of Cyprus on more than 3,000 British twins showed the same genetic factors that account for having a "creative personality" also make people more likely to identify new business opportunities and to start companies. Our earlier research showed that the same genetic predispositions that make some people more likely than others to seek novelty also affect their odds of being in business for themselves. Furthermore, in research we undertook with a group of molecular geneticists, we found that a version of one of the genes that governs the level of dopamine in the brain, and which is associated with the tendency to search out novelty, was more common among entrepreneurs than non-entrepreneurs.

Hormones might be another pathway through which genetics influence how entrepreneurs think. A 2006 study showed that men with higher base testosterone levels were more tolerant of risk and more likely to be entrepreneurs than men with lower base testosterone levels. A 2011 study showed that entrepreneurs who had been exposed to more testosterone when in utero had faster growing firms than those who were exposed to less of the hormone.

As academics explore these questions, we will learn more about the role that nature and nurture play in accounting for differences between entrepreneurs and the rest of us. While future research will no doubt show that nurture plays a significant role, my hunch is that it will also reveal that the intuition of many practitioners is right. Entrepreneurs are "wired differently" from the rest of us.

Related: The Paradox of Generation Y

Scott Shane

Professor at Case Western Reserve University

Scott Shane is the A. Malachi Mixon III professor of entrepreneurial studies at Case Western Reserve University. His books include Illusions of Entrepreneurship: The Costly Myths That Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Policy Makers Live by (Yale University Press, 2008) and Finding Fertile Ground: Identifying Extraordinary Opportunities for New Businesses (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005).

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