Dopamine and Enterprise

14 August 2012

By Clem Auyeung, Research Intern

In this article, we introduce dopamine as the primary agent that induces the characteristic that defines an entrepreneur: risk-taking. In comparison to addicts, we show that addictive behavior is an asset rather than a liability. According to Barbara Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge in England, “Entrepreneurs seem to represent a high-adaptive form of risk-taking behavior,” says Sahakian, “they can turn stressful decision-making into positive outcomes.” So what is going on in the brains of entrepreneurs that differ from managers who keep projects from derailing?

In a study where she compared the psychological assessments of thirty-five similarly intelligent and successful businessmen in which half were entrepreneurial and half were not, she found that entrepreneurs excelled at making “hot” decisions — decision-making in the face of risk and stress. Both groups scored similarly on cold decision-making, the kind that involves logical, calculated approach to deciding. “As we get older,” says Sahakian, “we lose our predilection for risk—this is very well established. But entrepreneurs don’t go this route. They make risky decisions like they were still 17-27 years old.” When entrepreneurs make numerous “do or fail” decisions everyday, it seems obvious that they would excel in making hot, emotional decisions. It’s the job of the managers to keep strategy on track and to protect the status quo. But there is more to just blindly jumping off the proverbial cliff, which I’m not implying entrepreneurs do.

David J. Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine raised an interesting point in the New York Times when he suggested that perhaps we should look for our next leader with an addictive personality. What Linden was referring to is our pleasure circuitry’s role on learning, motivation, and reward — specifically the way our neurotransmitter, dopamine, pushes us to act. He found that the biological wiring of addicts and entrepreneurs are quite similar in that they possess a genetic variant of dopamine receptors which are blunted. Dopamine is a neurochemical that when it attaches to its receptors in the pleasure circuitry, it induces a sensation of satiation, wholeness, and completeness. And these feelings are a key motivator for reward-based learning. It’s a chemical for go-getters who gets rewarded with a buzz when the person takes actions that move him/her towards accomplishing a goal that triggers dopamine release.

So while we generally view self-initiative as a positive trait, the hyper-focus on accomplishing goals likely manifests itself as obsessive personalities. Addicts and entrepreneurs have a genetic variant of the receptor that suppress dopamine signalling. Whereas people with normal receptors would generally feel happy and content, the bearers of the blunted receptors are more prone to pleasure- and novelty-seeking behaviours to compensate for the lower effects of dopamine on their pleasure circuit. Because of this drive for stimulation, people with blunted receptors are often restless, obsessive, and impulsive. Linden explains, “Addicts want their pleasures more but like them less.” I’m not suggesting that entrepreneurs and addicts are freaks of nature or are forever tethered to their genetic make up. Quite the opposite, in fact. The main difference between entrepreneurs and drug addicts is that entrepreneurs have adapted their obsessive, risk-taking personality to productive uses in the political arena, creative industries, business problems, and others. Their risk-taking sensibility is responsible for disrupting industries, ushering successful startup exits, and inventing some of the most creative solutions for our most intractable problems. From this point of view, an addictive personality is a gift. You might consider that their entrepreneurial successes came about not despite their condition but because of it. They often don’t play by the rules and they will do things that we would normally respond by saying, “You’re crazy.” A fear of failure? Not in their vocabulary. Still, they are susceptible indulgent behaviors as Dr. Aaron Blackledge discovered. He is the founder and CEO of Care Practice in San Francisco that retains a disproportionate roster of entrepreneurs, programmers, and tech-savvy people as clients. As Blackledge’s medical clinic started attracting this subset of residents, he saw a particular neuro-chemical pattern emerge from his entrepreneurial-minded patients. “They’re people that balance their neurochemistry by constantly doing something stimulating or innovative at all times,” he says. To relieve this certain restlessness, Blackledge recommends doing an intense activity that’s both creative and social. “They’re meant to be physically active,” he says. So while I paint a picture of an entrepreneur teetering on the tightrope between weak-willed, hedonistic, and drug-filled life and one of successfully disrupting industries and profiting from missed opportunities, my greater interest is in figuring out what each of us can do to become more entrepreneurial.

If possible, how can we enhance our brain chemistry to become a better version of ourselves? How can we achieve the things we want and how can we remove mental roadblocks to get out of a rut?

1) Can eating certain foods in the right amounts, combinations, and times create an optimal brain for entrepreneurial activities?

2) Will certain exercises and health habits help our neurons release the right neuro-chemicals so we can be more productive, alert, and able to decipher important insights? 3) Do we have the capacity to think our way towards an entrepreneurial state of mind? Since not everyone wants to become an entrepreneur but everyone can benefit from being more entrepreneurial, we can broaden our conversation to recognize that perhaps entrepreneurs were shaped in part from their neurological genetic variation but people can learn to take on characteristics that make entrepreneurs successful — mainly their impulse to do something, to leave fear behind and take a step into the unknown. The propensity to take risks is only one characteristic of entrepreneurial individuals. So to paint a more complete picture of who these people are and what qualities they exhibit, I will continue to explore their unique contributions to society and the impact that they have on our perception of what is possible. As Seth Godin says in his book, Tribes, “Leadership is about creating the change that you believe in.” If he’s willing to qualify a person’s biological output of dopamine, he might augment that definition with Linden’s suggestion for finding an organisation’s next leader: “Look for someone with an attenuated dopamine function: someone who is never satisfied with the status quo, someone who wants the feeling of success more than others — but likes it less.”